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NASA's nuclear laser tank will hunt down any life on Mars

Seriously though: How excellent if there was some

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While tales of UFOs and alien abductions are still being greeted with snorts of derision, NASA really is searching the skies for signs of extraterrestrial life, though it's not little green (or grey) men the agency is looking for, it's signs of life - most probably not above the microbial level - on Mars.

The Red Planet has been an enticing option for life outside of this planet for both scientists and popular culture. Its proximity and similarity to Earth has led to all sorts of speculations, from Marvin the Martian to the famous 'Face on Mars' photo taken by the Viking 1 orbiter in 1976.

Now, the American space agency is sending its biggest and best Mars rover to try to discover if there was, is, or could be the potential for microbial life on the planet.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission will carry Curiosity, a rover five times as large as, and carrying 10 times more scientific instruments than, the previous Mars rovers Spirit or Opportunity.

The space truck is the size of a small SUV, has its very own fancy propulsive launcher to land it on the planet and carries cameras, a robotic arm, a drill and a laser capable of vaporising rock.

In fact, there's so much gear on the rover that it can't be powered by solar panels, oh no, it needs a plutonium-powered 'space battery' to run all its gizmos and gadgets.

NASA is launching the MSL on an Atlas V booster on November 26, a day later than originally intended, but Curiosity won't reach the surface of Mars until sometime in August next year after a journey of around 354 million miles.

On arrival at Mars the complex "aeroshell" - the round space tin in which the rover and its rocket-skycrane landercraft are packaged - will make a screaming entry into the thin atmosphere of the red planet, during which it will scrub off velocity using "S-curve" manoeuvres much as space shuttles used to do when plunging down through Earth's atmosphere. The aeroshell will slow itself further in the final minutes using a parachute, then release the rover and its "upper stage" lander, a sort of flying rocket bedstead which will use retro thrust to bring itself down to a hover above the surface and lower the rover down on cables in "sky crane" mode the last few metres. Lines detached, the sky-crane upper stage will then use the last of its fuel to take itself off somewhere and crash safely away from Curiosity's landing point.

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