Cape Canaveral: The US space agency plans to launch the most powerful and advanced robotic rover ever built to explore Mars and hunt for signs that life may once have existed on the red planet on Saturday.

The Mars Science Laboratory, an elite six-wheeled vehicle powered by nuclear fuel, is scheduled to launch at 10:02 am (1502 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop an Atlas V rocket.

"This is a Mars scientist's dream machine," Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told reporters.

"This is the most capable scientific explorer we have ever sent out... We are super excited."

At a price of USD 2.5 billion, the rover, also known as Curiosity, aims to provide scientists with detailed information about the rocks on the surface of Mars, and clues about whether life ever existed on Earth's nearest neighbor.

To do that, the SUV-sized rover is equipped with a robotic arm, a drill, a set of 10 science instruments including two color video cameras, a laser beam for zapping interesting rocks and a tool kit for analyzing their contents.

If all goes as planned and Curiosity lands intact in about nine months, on August 5, 2012, the rover will be able to report back to scientists on what it finds without ever bringing the rock samples back to Earth.

NASA's exploration of Mars began with the 1976 landing of the Viking spacecraft and has continued with, most recently, the twin rovers known as Spirit and Opportunity that began tooling around on the Martian surface in 2004. Spirit finally died last year, but Opportunity is still working.