Here is a fascinating story, told without words, of how the world's premiere space agency plans to test Mars for bacterial life this year using a new robot that looks like it could kick WALL-E's sorry butt.
It begins in the hollow of space with a lonesome "pop" as a cigar-shaped mother capsule releases a probe that makes a beeline for the Red Planet. Several months later, the craft is burning a hole in the Martian atmosphere until it deploys a parachute and stabilizing rockets that recall the space-Marine personnel vehicle from Aliens. The ship then disgorges a six-wheeled RTV/mobile lab known as "Curiosity," which is lowered the remaining distance to the ground. Then things start to really get cool.
Curiosity is scheduled to exit Earth this winter and land on our neighboring planet in August 2012. It's outfitted with a laser, a robotic arm, a weather station, a drill to test Martian rocks for signs of life and more than 10 pounds of plutonium dioxide for heating and power purposes. No need to be worried about that: Althought there is a 3.3 percent chance of a launch accident, NASA notes that the "type of plutonium used in a radioisotope power system is different from the material used in weapons, and cannot explode like a bomb." (There are details about the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator in this PDF.)
If all goes well, the insectoid-looking laboratory will scoot around Mars for nearly 2 years, collecting and analyzing samples. Read more about the nifty robot on Curiosity's mission page. The space agency has even set up a webcam that shows "bunny suit"-wearing engineers (not what you'd think) building it in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.