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Mars Rover Curiosity Set for Saturday Morning Launch

This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)(BREVARD COUNTY, Fla.) -- Mars beckons space age explorers, much as the New World lured Christopher Columbus. NASA answers the siren call again Saturday -- launching the $2.5 billion nuclear-powered Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed Curiosity.

It is the most ambitious and complex robotic rover built to explore the Red Planet. The goal: find elements that could prove whether life ever existed on Mars.

The Saturday launch window opens at 10:02 a.m. ET, and there are daily opportunities after that until Dec. 18. NASA said Friday the weather is 70 percent go for launch from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just south of the launch pads from which space shuttles left for 30 years, and before them, Apollo moon missions.

Curiosity is set for a nearly nine-month trip to the Red Planet. Getting there is only the start; when the spacecraft plows into the thin Martian atmosphere, that's where the spacecraft designers will be tested.

Curiosity weighs one ton and is much too heavy to land on airbags like NASA's previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. So it will be slowed by a heat shield and parachute, then gently lowered to the planet's surface on cables suspended from a rocket-powered sky crane. It is the first time this design is being used, and mission managers have openly confessed they're uneasy.

Of 38 missions to Mars since the beginning of the space age, NASA counts 24 failures. The Russians have never yet had a full success.

This mission, if it succeeds, will answer questions for NASA scientists who are planning to send humans to Mars, some day. How would a manned mission work?

"The key is pre-deploying spacecraft and rovers -- getting infrastructure in place to make the most of the time we have to explore the planet," said Bret Drake of NASA's Human Space Flight Team.

Drake said we just won't know enough to go to Mars for another 30 years. It would take 180 days to get to Mars, 180 days to get back, and the astronauts would spend 500 days exploring the planet. The logistics are daunting. Problems like protecting astronauts from the radiation found in interplanetary space have yet to be solved.

Astronaut Mike Gerhardt is testing concept rovers and systems that could be used by explorers on Mars. A 900 day mission? He would go in a heartbeat.

"Once you get there, think how exhilarating it would be," he said. "You would be discovering a new planet."

If all goes well, Curiosity will land on Mars Aug. 6, 2012.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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