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NASA has launched its next Mars rover, kicking off a long-awaited mission to investigate whether the Red Planet could ever have hosted microbial life.

The car-size Curiosity rover blasted off atop its Atlas 5 rocket today (Nov. 26) at 10:02 a.m. EST (1502 GMT), streaking into a cloudy sky above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here. The huge robot's next stop is Mars, though the 354-million-mile (570-million-kilometer) journey will take 8 1/2 months.

Joy Crisp, a deputy project scientist for the rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., called the liftoff "spectacular."

"This feels great," she said as she watched the rocket lift off from Cape Canaveral. [Photos: Curiosity Rover Launches to Mars]

The Martian landing date is August 20, 2012. To read more, click here.