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April 1, 2003
Michael Mewhinney
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Phone: 650/604-3937 or 650/604-9000

Anne Watzman
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Penn.
Phone: 412/268-3830



A team of NASA and Carnegie Mellon University scientists will travel to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile April 1 to conduct research that will help them develop and deploy a robot and instruments that may someday enable other robots to find life on Mars.

The researchers will be using the Atacama, described as one of the most arid regions on Earth, as a martian analog. NASA Ames Research Center is providing the autonomy technology for the research, which is part of NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring the Planets (ASTEP) project.

“This field campaign is a good example of what we hope to accomplish with NASA's ASTEP program,” said Michael Meyer, senior scientist for astrobiology and the 2001 Mars Odyssey program scientist, NASA Headquarters. “By pushing the limits of technology in harsh environments, we'll also push the known limits of life on Earth and be better prepared to search for life on other worlds,” Meyer added.

“Our goal is to make genuine discoveries about the limits of life on Earth and to generate knowledge that can be applied to future NASA missions to Mars," said project leader David Wettergreen, a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. "We will conduct three annual field experiments in the Atacama. Each time, an increasingly capable robot will use sensing and intelligence to find land forms or environmental conditions that could harbor life."

The group is funded with a $3 million, three-year grant from NASA to the university’s Robotics Institute. The group is collaborating with scientists at Carnegie Mellon’s Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center, who have a $900,000 grant from NASA to develop fluorescent dyes and automated microscopes that the robot will eventually use to locate various forms of life.

This year, the team will be using an autonomous, solar-powered robot named Hyperion, to determine the optimum design, software and instrumentation for a new robot that will be used in the more extensive experiments to be conducted over the next two years.

In 2001, scientists tested Hyperion on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, where it successfully demonstrated a concept called sun-synchronous navigation. The robot tracked the sun as a source of power and explored its surroundings as it traveled continuously through a 24-hour period of daylight.

During this year's visit to the Atacama, researchers will focus on measurements and experiments with the robot’s hardware and software components. They will test Hyperion as it travels through the desert and collect data with scientific instruments, including a fluorescence imager, near-infrared spectrometer, and a high-resolution panoramic imager.

Wettergreen said that Hyperion will travel some 10 kilometers through the desert this year, while researchers study issues related to robotic autonomy. The robot’s solar panels have been laid flat on top of its body for the upcoming experiments so it can capture the maximum amount of sunlight in the equatorial environment. In the Arctic, the panels were mounted vertically, like sails on a boat, because the sun was often low on the horizon.

A next-generation robot, developed from the findings of this year's work, should perform 50 kilometers of autonomous traverse in the desert in 2004. In 2005, the final year of the project, a robot equipped with a full array of instruments should operate autonomously as it travels 200 kilometers over a two-month period. During this climactic journey, the robot should map sites where life is abundant, and then move into drier areas where life has not been detected.

In 2005, plans call for the science team to operate as if it were exploring Mars in a scenario that would include a time delay and limited communication. “We'll operate under the constraints of martian exploration in order to better develop procedures for seeking life on another planet,” Wettergreen said. “The robot will monitor its own power, balance, locomotion, communication and science operations as it goes. It needs to be able to move into unknown terrain using cameras and internal sensors -- the same instruments and information that would be available to a robot exploring Mars.”

Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute, will lead the science team for the investigation of the Atacama. Members of the science team are geologists and biologists who study both Earth and Mars at institutions including NASA Ames and NASA Johnson Space Center, the SETI Institute, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Arizona, the University of Tennessee, Carnegie Mellon and Universidad Catolica del Norte (Chile).

"The role of the science team is to develop new astrobiological exploration strategies that will help the science community to better understand both the limits of life on Earth in one of its most arid deserts where water and microorganic life are extremely scarce, and also to derive automated life search and detection scenarios for future missions to Mars,” Cabrol said.

“This project will field test innovative combinations of science instruments and new rover search modes. If life appeared once on Mars and has been preserved in some way, whether as fossils or extant communities, it is then critical that future missions be capable of automatically and unambiguously detecting it. This project is aiming at achieving this goal in the Atacama in three years as a stepping stone to Mars.”

For more information, updates and images from the Atacama beginning April 7 visit:

Link to publication size images of robot on NASA Ames web site:



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