Press Release

Robotic Astrobiology Expedition Yields Significant Science Findings

By SpaceRef Editor
March 16, 2005
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Robotic Astrobiology Expedition Yields Significant Science Findings

A group of scientists announced today that they identified habitats and microbial life using a rover in Chile’s arid Atacama desert, one of the harshest environments on Earth, and that their findings may bode well for future missions to Mars.

Results were announced today at the 36th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference being held in Houston, March 14 to 18. Results were based both on the remote science team’s interpretation of rover data and on laboratory analysis of returned samples collected during the ‘Life in the Atacama’ expedition from September to October 2004.

Samples first identified and documented by the remote science team using the rover showed positive identification of natural fluorescence of organic molecules including Chorlophyll and, after application of fluorescence dye probes, identification of DNA and protein. Those samples were brought back to the lab and “preliminary results showed biological activity,” said Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute at NASA Ames Research Center, located in California’s Silicon Valley, who leads the science investigation.

Also participating in the rover field experiment were scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh; the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; the University of Arizona, Tucson; the University of California at Los Angeles; Universidad Católica del Norte in Chile, the British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, and the International Research School of Planetary Sciences in Pescara, Italy.

Using a long-range, solar-powered, automated rover named Zoë developed by Carnegie Mellon University, scientists explored the Atacama and tested a scientific payload to search for microbial life. Investigations at two sites, each lasting a week, encompassed both the most humid coastal region of the desert and its arid core and required the rover to make multi-kilometer traverses to sample the distribution of organisms.

While the rover was in the Atacama, the remote science team was located in Pittsburgh, receiving a science and engineering telemetry once per day. The remote rover operations simulated the current Mars mission in many respects: team organization, pre-mission datasets, bandwidth, command cycles and orbital support imaging.

“Life is barely detectable over most of the desert,” Cabrol explained. “Its geological, climatic and biological evolution provides a unique training ground for designing and testing exploration strategies and especially life-detection methods for the robotic search for life on Mars.”

In addition to searching for life, scientists have sought to understand the physical and environmental conditions associated with habitats and learn how various organisms have contributed to the modification of their environments. Cabrol especially focuses on the development of ‘life-seeking’ exploration strategies using the highly mobile rover.

“We created Zoë to reliably and efficiently roam the desert and make scientific measurements,” said David Wettergreen, an associate research professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. “To encounter more potential habitats, our research effort has been on long-duration autonomy and long-distance surface navigation,” he added. Exploration strategies are aimed at facilitating the detection of likely isolated and sheltered colonies of microbial life and could be used on Mars in future astrobiological missions.

“The Life in the Atacama Project opens the path to a new generation of rover missions that will transition from the current study of habitability by the Mars Exploration Rovers, to the upcoming search for, and study of, POTENTIAL habitats and life on Mars,” Cabrol said.

“Nobody can tell yet that life appeared on Mars, but what we have demonstrated is that we now have a rover that is capable of taking a science team to the right spot with a lot more confidence,” Cabrol said. “We’re making good progress.”

Funded by a $3 million, three-year grant from NASA to Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, the Life in the Atacama Project is part of NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology Program for Exploring Planets (ASTEP). Cabrol is the Life in the Atacama project science lead. Wettergreen leads the rover development and field investigation for the project. Dr. Alan Waggoner, professor of biology at Carnegie Mellon, led the development of fluorescence imaging and dye probes and the integration of these technologies with the rover.

SpaceRef staff editor.