Nasa has launched the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which carries a car-sized rover named Curiosity, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the US to explore Mars.

The MSL’s prime mission after landing on Mars in August 2012 is to investigate whether the region has ever offered conditions favourable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life.

Curiosity carries ten science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science-instrument payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then send these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.

The mission is managed by Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington and the rover was designed, developed and assembled at JPL.