Nasa’s £1.6 billion machine, named Curiosity, wil seek organic compounds and signs of whether the planet might be – or might ever have been – habitable.

Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as earlier Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. It is equipped to carry a set of 10 science equipment  weighing 15 times as much as its predecessors’ science payloads.

A mast extending to 7 feet (2.1 meters) above ground provides height for cameras and a laser-firing instrument to study targets from a distance, while instruments on a 7-foot-long (2.1-meter-long) arm will study targets up close. 
Additional analytical instruments inside the rover will determine the composition of rock and soil samples acquired with the arm’s powdering drill and scoop.

The nuclear-powered craft will reach Mars in August 2012, where it wil enter the thin atmosphere at 3,200mph for a descent to the floor of a 100-mile-wide crater.

It will be gently lowered to the surface on cables suspended from a rocket-powered “sky crane” making its debut flight.

Because it is too big to employ airbags – like those on other crafts sent to Mars – Curiosity will rely  on landing rockets positioned above it, avoiding the challenge of finding a reliable way to get a one-ton vehicle off an elevated lander.

Instead, Curiosity will be set down on its six 20-inch-wide wheels, ready to roll.

Getting to Mars has always been difficult. The United States has launched 18 missions to the red planet, chalking up 13 successes and 5 failures, including back-to-back disasters in 1999. The Russians have fared worse, launching nearly 20 missions with only 2 partial successes to date.