PITTSBURGH — Carnegie Mellon University researchers and theircolleagues from NASA's Ames Research Center, the universities ofTennessee, Arizona and Iowa, as well as Chilean researchers atUniversidad Catolica del Norte (Antofagasta) are preparing for thefinal stage of a three-year project to develop a prototype roboticastrobiologist, a robot that can explore and study life in the driestdesert on Earth.
The team will direct and monitor Zoë, anautonomous solar-powered rover developed at Carnegie Mellon, as ittravels 180 kilometers in Chile's Atacama Desert. Zoë is equipped withscientific instruments to seek and identify micro-organisms and tocharacterize their habitats. It will use them as it explores threediverse regions of the desert during its two-month stay, which runsfrom August 22 to October 22.
The results of this expeditionultimately may enable future robots to seek life on Mars, as well asenabling the discovery of new information about the distribution oflife on Earth.
The search-for-life project was begun in 2003under NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology Program for ExploringPlanets, or ASTEP, which concentrates on pushing the limits oftechnology to study life in harsh environments.
Zoë's abilitiesrepresent the culmination of three years of work to determine theoptimum design, software and instrumentation for a robot that canautonomously investigate different habitats. During the 2004 fieldseason, Zoë exceeded scientists' expectations when it traveled 55kilometers autonomously and detected living organisms using its onboardFluorescence Imager (FI) to locate chlorophyll and other organicmolecules.
"Our goal with this final investigation is to developa method to create a real-time, 3D topographic 'map' of life at themicroscopic level," said Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary scientist at NASAAmes and the SETI Institute who heads the science investigation aspectsof the project. "This map eventually could be integrated with satellitedata to create an unprecedented tool for studies of large-scaleenvironmental activities on life in specific areas. This concept can beapplied to planetary research and also on Earth to explore otherextreme environments."
"This is the first time a robot is lookingfor life," said Carnegie Mellon associate research professor DavidWettergreen, who leads the project. "We have worked with rovers andindividual instruments before, but Zoë is a complete system for lifeseeking. We are working toward full autonomy of each day's activities,including scheduling time and resource use, control of instrumentdeployment and navigation between study areas.
"Last year welearned that the Fluorescence Imager can detect organisms in thisenvironment. This year we'll be able to see how densely an area ispopulated with organisms and map their distribution. We intend to havethe robot make as many as 100 observations and make advances inprocedural developments like how to decide where to explore."
Zoëwill visit a foggy coastal region, the dry Andean altiplano, and anarea in the desert's arid interior that receives no precipitation fordecades at a time. At these sites, the rover's activities will beguided remotely from an operations center in Pittsburgh where theresearchers will characterize the environment, seek clear proof of lifeand map the distribution of various habitats. During last year'smission, the team carried out experiments using an imager able todetect fluorescence in an area underneath the rover. The FI detectssignals from two fluorescent dyes that mark carbohydrates and proteins— as well as the natural fluorescence of chlorophyll. The FI, developedby Alan Waggoner, director of the university's Molecular Biosensor andImaging Center (MBIC), was not fully automated last year. Scientistshad to follow the rover and spray dyes onto the sample area. This year,Zoë can spray a mixture of dyes for DNA, protein, lipid andcarbohydrates without human intervention.
The Life in the Atacamaproject is funded with a $3 million, three-year grant from NASA toCarnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute in the School of Computer Science.They collaborate with MBIC scientists, who received a separate $900,000NASA grant to develop fluorescent dyes and automated microscopes tolocate various forms of life.
The science team uses EventScope, aremote experience browser developed by researchers at the STUDIO forCreative Inquiry in Carnegie Mellon's College of Fine Arts, to guideZoë. It enables scientists and the public to experience the Atacamaenvironment through the rover's "eyes" and various sensors. During thefield investigation, scientists will interact with Zoë in a scienceoperations control room at the Remote Experience and Learning Lab inPittsburgh. Scientists from NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, theUniversity of Tennessee, University of Arizona, the British AntarcticSurvey and the European Space Agency will participate.
For more information, images and field reports from the Atacama, visit: www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/atacama.
Materials provided by Carnegie Mellon University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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