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CLEARFIELD, Utah (AP) - NASA's biggest Mars rover is shooting toward the red planet aboard an unmanned Atlas V rocket that an aerospace company's Utah plant helped build.
Virginia-based ATK Aerospace Systems' facilities in Clearfield and Iuka, Miss., built the composite heat shield, interstage adapter and boat-tail sections of the Atlas V, company spokeswoman Vicki Cox said. The structures range in size from 10 to 18 feet in diameter.
ATK's Commerce, Calif., facility built other key parts for the rocket that launched Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., she said. Its engineering teams in Pasadena, Calif., and Beltsville, Md., provided technical support to develop a number of science instruments aboard NASA's Curiosity rover.
It will take more than 8 months for the mobile laboratory to reach Mars following a journey of 354 million miles. The rover, officially known as Mars Science Laboratory, will search for evidence that the planet might once have been home to microbial life.
ATK has been involved in almost every Mars mission conducted by NASA, from the Mariner and Viking programs to the most recent Phoenix Lander.
"I am extremely proud of our ATK teams for delivering mission success to NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, two of our longstanding customers," Ken Reightler, the company's vice president of engineering services and a former NASA astronaut, said in a statement.
"The dedication and commitment from our employees over the last two years reinforces NASA's ongoing confidence in ATK to provide the highest level of engineering services support to the Mars mission," he added.
The 1-ton Curiosity - as large as a car - is a nuclear- powered laboratory holding 10 science instruments that will sample Martian soil and rocks, and analyze them right on the spot. It will spend at least two years roaming around Gale Crater.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)