Press Release

Robot-Based System Developed at Carnegie Mellon Detects Life in Chile’s Atacama Desert

By SpaceRef Editor
March 15, 2005
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Robot-Based System Developed at Carnegie Mellon Detects Life in Chile’s Atacama Desert
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PITTSBURGH-A unique rover-based life detection system developed by
Carnegie Mellon University scientists has found signs of life in Chile’s
Atacama Desert, according to results being presented at the 36th Lunar and
Planetary Science Conference March 14-18 in Houston. This marks the first
time a rover-based automated technology has been used to identify life in
this harsh region, which serves as a test bed for technology that could be
deployed in future Mars missions.

“Our life detection system worked very well, and something like it
ultimately may enable robots to look for life on Mars,” said Alan Waggoner,
Atacama team member and director of the Molecular Biosensor and Imaging
Center at the university’s Mellon College of Science.

The “Life in the Atacama” 2004 field season – from August to mid-October –
was the second phase of a three-year program whose goal is to understand
how life can be detected by a rover that is being controlled by a remote
science team. 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. David Wettergreen,
associate research professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, leads
rover development and field investigation aspects of the project. Nathalie
Cabrol, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and the SETI
Institute, leads the science investigation.

Life is barely discernible over most areas of the Atacama, but the rover’s
instruments were able to detect lichens and bacterial colonies in two
areas: a coastal region with a more humid climate and an interior, very
arid region less hospitable to life.

“We saw very clear signals from chlorophyll, DNA and protein. And we were
able to visually identify biological materials from a standard image
captured by the rover. Taken together, these four pieces of evidence are
strong indicators of life,” said Waggoner. “Now, our findings are being
confirmed in the lab. Samples collected in the Atacama were examined, and
scientists found that they contained life. The lichens and bacteria in the
samples are growing and awaiting analysis.”

Waggoner and his colleagues have designed a life detection system equipped
to detect fluorescent signals from sparse life forms, including those that
are mere millimeters in size. Their fluorescence imager, which is located
underneath the rover, detects signals from chlorophyll-based life, such as
cyanobacteria in lichens, and fluorescent signals from a set of dyes
designed to light up only when they bind to one of the following – nucleic
acid, protein, lipid or carbohydrate – all molecules of life.

“We don’t know of other remote methods capable both of detecting low
levels of micro-organisms and visualizing high levels incorporated as
biofilms or colonies,” said Gregory Fisher, project imaging scientist.
“Our fluorescent imager is the first such system to work in the daylight
while in the shade of the rover. The rover uses solar energy to operate so
it needs to travel during daylight hours. Many times, the images we capture
may only reveal a faint signal. Any sunlight that leaks in to the camera of
a conventional fluorescence imager would obscure the signal,” said Waggoner.
“To avoid this problem, we designed our system to excite dyes with high
intensity flashes of light. The camera only opens during those flashes, so
we are able to capture a strong fluorescence signal during daytime
exploration,” said Shmuel Weinstein, project manager.

During the mission, a remote science team located in Pittsburgh instructed
the rover’s operations. A ground truth team at the site collected samples
studied by the rover to bring back for further examination in the lab. On a
typical day in the field, the rover woke up and followed a path designated
the previous day by the remote operations science team. The rover followed
a transect and stopped occasionally to perform detailed surface inspection,
effectively creating a “macroscopic quilt” of geologic and biological data
in selected 10 by 10 centimeter panels. After the rover departed a region,
the ground truth science team collected samples the rover had examined.

“Based on the rover findings in the field and our tests in the laboratory,
there is not one example of the rover giving a false positive,” said Edwin
Minkley, director of the Center for Biotechnology and Environmental
Processes in the Department of Biological Sciences. “Every sample we tested
had bacteria in it.”

Minkley is conducting analyses to determine the genetic characteristics of
the recovered bacteria to identify the different microbial species present
in the samples. He also is testing the bacteria’s sensitivity to
ultraviolet (UV) radiation. One hypothesis is that the bacteria may have
greater UV resistance because they are exposed to extreme UV radiation in
the desert environment. This characterization also may explain why such a
high proportion of the bacteria from the most arid site are pigmented –
red, yellow or pink – as they grow in the laboratory, according to Minkley.
The first phase of the ASTEP 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 in 2004
and in 2005. Zoe, a brand new robot, was developed in response to what was
learned in 2003. In the final year of the project, plans call for Zoe,
equipped with a full array of scientific instruments, to operate
autonomously as it travels 50 kilometers over a two-month period.

The science team, led by Cabrol, is made up of geologists and biologists
who study both Earth and Mars at institutions including NASA’s Ames
Research Center and Johnson Space Center, SETI Institute, Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, the University of Tennessee, Carnegie Mellon, Universidad
Catolica del Norte (Chile), the University of Arizona, the University of
California, Los Angeles, the British Antarctic Survey, and the
International Research School of Planetary Sciences (Pescara, Italy).

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.
Waggoner is principal investigator for the companion project in
life-detection instruments, which has a separate $900,000 grant from NASA.

SpaceRef staff editor.