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News

Researchers to demonstrate autonomous robot that will soon be sent to seek life in Chile's Atacama Desert

Carnegie Mellon Universtity : 12 August, 2006  (Technical Article)
Carnegie Mellon University robotics and life sciences researchers will demonstrate Zo
The researchers, who are part of a team that includes scientists from NASA's Ames Research Center (Mountain View, Calif.), the University of Tennessee and Universidad Catolica del Norte (Antofagasta, Chile), will soon be accompanying ZoŽ to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, where it will perform experiments focused on seeking and identifying forms of life.

The team will spend nearly two months in the Atacama, described as the most arid region on earth, working on the second phase of a three-year program whose results may ultimately enable robots to look for life on Mars. The project is part of NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology Program for Exploring Planets, or ASTEP, which concentrates on pushing the limits of technology in harsh environments.

The first phase of the project began when a solar-powered robot named Hyperion, also developed at Carnegie Mellon, was taken to the Atacama as a research test bed. Scientists conducted experiments with Hyperion to determine the optimum design, software and instrumentation for a robot that would be used in more extensive experiments conducted this fall. ZoŽ is the result of that work. In the final year of the project, plans call for ZoŽ, equipped with a full array of instruments, to operate autonomously as it travels 50 kilometers over a two-month period.

David Wettergreen, associate research professor in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute and project leader for Life in the Atacama, will be in the desert with his colleagues from the end of August to mid-October conducting experiments in rover perception, mobility and autonomy during long-distance traverses. The Atacama team also will conduct a series of robotic science investigations in which ZoŽ will be sent to visit promising locations and deploy instruments able to identify life forms. During these investigations, the rover's activities will be guided remotely from an operations center in Pittsburgh.

This year's Atacama mission will include an effort to document the life-detection capabilities of people in contrast with those of robots. A fluorescence imager developed by Alan Waggoner, director of the Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center in the university's Mellon College of Science, will be located beneath the rover and used to detect the presence of molecules indicative of life.

'Our goal is to make genuine discoveries about the limits of life on Earth and to create technology that can be applied to future NASA missions,' said Wettergreen. 'This will be the second of three field experiments in the Atacama. Each time our robot is better able to use sensing and intelligence to find land forms or environmental conditions that could harbor life.'

'Ultimately, we want to create an astrobiologist without a space suit,' said Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames and the SETI Institute, who will lead the science team for the Atacama investigation.

The Life in the Atacama project is funded with a $3 million, three-year grant from NASA to Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute in the School of Computer Science. William 'Red' Whittaker is the principal investigator. Researchers from the Robotics Institute are collaborating with scientists in the MBIC, which has a separate $900,000 grant from NASA to develop fluorescent dyes and automated microscopes that the robot will use to locate various forms of life.

A solar-powered, autonomous rover like its predecessor Hyperion, ZoŽ is expected to travel 2 kilometers each solar day, with a maximum speed of 100 centimeters per second. By contrast, the current Mars rovers travel 0.007 kilometers in one solar day, with a maximum speed of 5 centimeters per second. ZoŽ can also maneuver itself around large obstacles and survive a 30-degree incline.

ZoŽ will be guided by a science team using EventScope, a remote experience browser developed by researchers at the Studio for Creative Inquiry in Carnegie Mellon's College of Fine Arts. It enables scientists and the public to experience the Atacama environment through the eyes and various sensors of the rover. A science operations control room at the Remote Experience and Learning Lab in Pittsburgh will be active in September and October while ZoŽ is in the field. Scientists from NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Tennessee, the British Antarctic Survey and the European Space Agency will participate.
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