Press Release

Carnegie Mellon To Demonstrate Autonomous Robot That Will Seek Life in Chile’s Atacama Desert

By SpaceRef Editor
August 10, 2004
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Carnegie Mellon To Demonstrate Autonomous Robot That Will Seek Life in Chile’s Atacama Desert

PITTSBURGH-Carnegie Mellon University robotics and life sciences
researchers will demonstrate Zoe, an autonomous rover being groomed to
seek and identify life in hostile environments, at 10 a.m. Thursday,
Aug. 12, at the former LTV site off Brownfield Road in Pittsburgh.
(See below for directions.)

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 Zoe 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 in 2003 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 and in 2005. Zoe is the result of that work.

In the final
year of the project, plans call for Zoe, 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
Zoe 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

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 (MBIC) 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

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, Zoe
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. Zoe can also maneuver itself around
large obstacles and survive a 30-degree incline.

Zoe 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 Zoe 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.

For more information, images and field reports beginning
September 1 from the Atacama visit:

For more information on the Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center
and the fluorescent dyes being developed there, see:

To reach the LTV demonstration site, travel East on Second Avenue.
Continue straight ahead past Greenfield Avenue at the railroad
underpass. Pass through an open gate, over a railroad crossing, to
a second gate at the LTV site entrance. Enter the site and follow
orange traffic cones to the demonstration site.

SpaceRef staff editor.