In a matter of days, a geologist unlike any on Earth will venture into alien territory.
It has six legs and one arm. Instead of feet, it rides around on metal wheels as thin as cardboard. Its brain is in its belly, where it also digests and analyzes the remains of Martian rocks. It eats plutonium for breakfast.
Despite its resemblance to a one-armed, 1-ton praying mantis, Curiosity is the most advanced machine ever sent to another planet. If all goes according to plan, the rover will touch down on Mars on Aug. 5 and begin rolling along the surface a few days later.
Curiosity will be the eyes and ears for an international team of about 350 earthbound scientists. The rover's goal is to climb a 3-mile-tall mountain and gather evidence that could resolve a long-standing mystery: Was there life on Mars in its warmer, wetter past — and could it sustain life today?
The rover's suite of 10 primary instruments was designed with these questions in mind. It can shoot lasers at rocks to see what they're made of. It can record hours of high-quality color video of the Martian landscape and relay the footage back to Earth. It can even drill into stone to look for specific organic compounds thought to be necessary for life to begin.