NASA Atlas V Curiosity LaunchLIFTOFF!  NASA‘s Curiosity rover, the world’s largest extraterrestrial explorer, blasted off toward Mars this morning in search of ancient signs of life.

It will take about 8 1/2 months for Curiosity to reach the red planet in a trek of approximately 354 million miles.

An unmanned Atlas V rocket pushed the explorer into space. Over 13,000 spectators observed the launch of a Martian rover in eight years.

The 1-ton Curiosity explorer is a mobile, nuclear-powered laboratory carrying 10 science instruments that will study Martian soil and rocks.

The primary objective of the $2.5 billion mission is to see Mars might have fostered life at one time, and possibly whether or not life even exists there now.

The Curiosity rover has a 7-foot arm tipped with a jackhammer and a laser to break through the Martian red rock. What really makes it stand out, though, is the fact that it can analyze rocks and soil with unprecedented accuracy.

“This is a Mars scientist’s dream machine,” said NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory‘s Ashwin Vasavada, the deputy project scientist.

Curiosity will be “the largest and most complex piece of equipment ever placed on the surface of another planet,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program.

ISS Commander Dan Burbank sees the mission as a landmark one.

“We have the capability for analysis with essentially a laboratory which can analyze sampes and potentially give us very strong clus if there is life,” said Burbank.

Ten feet long, 9 feet wide, and 7 feet tall at its mast, Curiosity is about twice the size of previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity. It weighs one ton and its formal name is the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL.

Check out video of this morning’s launch below.