Image: NASA mega-rover, "Curiosity's" wheels and suspension
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP
NASA mega-rover Curiosity's wheels and suspension are shown at the Mars Science Laboratory at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Monday. Technicians, dressed in protective suits, has been working around the clock inside a clean room at the JPL assembling the craft, testing its science instruments, before shipping it off to Florida for launch.
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updated 4/4/2011 7:26:42 PM ET 2011-04-04T23:26:42

NASA engineers in California are putting the finishing touches on a Mars mega-rover before shipping it off to Florida for launch later this year.

A small army of technicians has been working around the clock inside a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles testing Curiosity and its science instruments.

The $2.5 billion mission was supposed to launch in 2009, but problems during construction forced a two-year delay.

With launch scheduled for late November, engineers have been busy testing the spacecraft's various systems — all the while making sure that contamination from Earth doesn't accidentally hitch a ride to Mars.

"There is still a fair amount of work" left to do, mission quality assurance engineer Bert Turney said Monday during a tour of the facility.

The nuclear-powered Curiosity — the size of a small sport utility vehicle — will drill into rocks and analyze soil samples to determine whether the red planet ever had the right environment to support primitive life. It will carry the most high-tech instruments to the Martian surface, including a laser that can zap boulders from afar.

To the dismay of some space fans, Curiosity won't carry a high-resolution 3-D camera that "Avatar" director James Cameron was helping to build. NASA recently nixed it because there wasn't enough time to fully test the zoom lens before launch.

Engineers put Curiosity through a battery of tests that simulated the harsh Martian environment to check its performance.

On Monday, technicians dressed in head-to-toe protective garb cleaned up after a weekend test of the rover's antenna and other communication systems. They later planned to flip the rover upside down and remove computer boxes for further testing.

Scientists expect Curiosity to build on the discoveries of the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have uncovered geologic evidence of ancient water, and the Phoenix lander, which found ice at its Martian north pole landing site.

Curiosity's road to the launch pad has been bumpy. Engineers had to redesign the rover's heat shield and fix problems with the parachute. NASA also faced delivery delays from subcontractors that affected the launch timetable and raised the mission price tag.

Image: NASA Mars Curiosity's mega-rover's Mars Science Laboratory Mast Camera
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP
The Curiosity rover's mast camera is displayed at the Mars Science Laboratory at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Monday.

Part of the reason why Curiosity is so technically challenging is because NASA has never built such an advanced rover before.

While the cruise to Mars and descent through the fiery atmosphere are similar to past missions, NASA is testing a new technology for landing.

Instead of using airbags to bounce to a stop, the 2,000-pound Curiosity will be gently lowered to the surface using a sky crane technique.

NASA will begin shipping spacecraft parts to Cape Canaveral beginning next month. The three-week launch window opens on Nov. 25.

In preparation for launch, Curiosity has been on a publicity blitz.

NASA last October installed a camera in a viewing gallery overlooking the clean room that allows anyone with a computer to watch a live stream of the rover construction. There's no audio feed, but the space agency hosts periodic online chats with viewers to explain what's going on.

Curiosity also has its own Twitter feed with more than 29,000 followers.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Mars Curiosity rover

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  1. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover lifts off from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011. (Terry Renna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Mars Science Laboratory, and accompanying Atlas V rocket, is hoisted into place at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (Kim Shiflett / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. NASA technicians look over the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover during inspections at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. NASA technicians examine the wheels of the Mars Science Laboratory rover. (Dutch Slager / NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Technicians examine the turret at the end of the Mars Science Laboratory's arm. The turret weighs 73 pounds and holds the machines that will touch the rocks and soil on Mars. (Frankie Martin / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Mars Science Laboratory's Entry, Descent and Landing Instrument will measure heat shield temperatures and atmospheric pressures during the spacecraft's high-speed, extremely hot entry into the Martian atmosphere. (Lockheed Martin) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. NASA engineers stand by Mars Science Laboratory's aeroshell, a conical shell that will help protect the rover Curiosity, a robot the size of a car, from the searing temperatures of atmospheric entry when it lands on Mars, shown at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Monday, April 4. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. National Aeronautics and Space Administration NASA mega-rover, Curiosity's wheels and suspension are shown at the Mars Science Laboratory. Technicians, dressed in protective suits, has been working around the clock inside a clean room at the JPL assembling the craft, testing its science instruments, before shipping it off to Florida for launch later this year. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. There are 10 instruments on board Curiosity that can analyze samples to help determine if the Red Planet is or has ever been "favorable" to microbial life, according to NASA.

    See more close-up Curiosity pics by Joseph Linaschke at Boing Boing (Joseph Linaschke / photojoseph.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA engineers work on Curiosity, a mega-rover at the Mars Science Laboratory. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. NASA Mars Curiosity's mega-rover's Mars Science Laboratory Mast Camera is seen at the Mars Science Laboratory, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Curiosity's wheels are individually powered, and enable the mega-rover to turn 360 degrees while staying in place.

    See more close-up Curiosity pics by Joseph Linaschke at Boing Boing (Joseph Linaschke / photojoseph.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. NASA engineers work on Curiosity. Last month, the mega-rover was subjected to "near-vacuum pressure," according to NASA, with temperatures colder than minus-200 degrees Fahrenheit, in order to simulate the environmental stresses of the Martian surface. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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