This is an artist concept of the Atlas V541 launch vehicle that will carry NASA's Curiosity rover on its way to Mars.
The Atlas V 541 vehicle was selected for the Mars Science Laboratory mission because it has the right liftoff capability for the heavy weight requirements of the rover and its spacecraft.
The launch vehicle will provide the velocity needed by the spacecraft to escape Earth's gravity and set it on its course for Mars. Atlas V rockets are expendable launch vehicles (ELVs), which means they are only used once.
With the Mars Science Laboratory payload on top, the launch vehicle stands 191 feet (58 meters) tall. In the moment depicted here, the payload fairing that encloses the spacecraft during ascent through the atmosphere is being released.
The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is being prepared for launch during Nov. 25 to Dec. 18, 2011. Landing on Mars is in early August 2012. In a prime mission lasting one Martian year (nearly two Earth years) researchers will use the rover's tools to study whether the landing region has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life existed.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.