Carnegie Mellon | Robotics Institute | Field Robotics Center | NASA | ASTEP
Life in the Atacama Header


Seeking Life in Extreme Environments

Evidence suggests that the interior of the Chilean Atacama Desert, the most arid region on Earth, contains no living organisms. Yet, where the desert meets the Pacific Coastal Range, desiccation-tolerant microorganisms are known to exist. The gradient of biodiversity and habitats of life in the Atacama's subregions remain unexplored.

Robotic field investigation will bring new scientific understanding of the Atacama as a habitat for life with distinct analogies to Mars. Our goal is to make genuine discoveries about the limits of life on Earth and to generate knowledge about life in extreme environments that can be applied to future planetary missions. In order to conduct this investigation, we will develop Robotic Astrobiology.

Field investigation over three years will use a rover to make transects of the Atacama with instruments to detect microorganisms and chlorophyll-based life forms and to characterize habitats. The rover will integrate panoramic imagers, microscopic imagers, spectrometers, as well as mechanisms for shallow subsurface access.

Robotic considerations in addition to instrument integration include platform configuration, planetary-relevant localization, complex obstacle negotiation, over-the-horizon navigation, and power-cognizant activity planning.

An architecture that coordinates these capabilities, provides health monitoring and fault recovery, and allows for variability in the degree of autonomy is vital to long-duration operations.

The measurement and exploration technique produced by this investigation combines long traverses, sampling measurements on a regional scale and detailed measurements of individual targets. When compared to the state of the art in robotic planetary exploration our approach will result in dramatic increase in the number of measurements made and data collected by rover instruments per command cycle. This result will translate into substantial productivity increases for future planetary exploration missions.

The Atacama Desert is a very inhospitable environment for most forms of life due to its lack of precipitation, high levels of UV radiation, and oxidant-rich soil. In order to identify even the slightest trace of life, Zoë is equipped with specialized tools and sensors.

Instrument Image Description
Environmental Sensors Weather station with wind, temperature, humidity, wetness, and pyronometer sensors. Used for both engineering(e.g. solar panel performance) and science environment understanding.
Mars MicroBeam Raman Spectrometer (MMRS) Used to identify and charachterize the molecular species of secondary minerals in the subsurface. And to evaluate the habitability within the subsurface. The MMRS alows for the spectrometer to be rastered across the sample.
Bio UV Flourescence Imager (BUF) Measures natural flourescense from soil and rocks. This is done by using an advanced camera and white and UV lighting.
Sampling Drill Rover deployed autonomous drill capable of collecting sub-surface soil samples from up to a 80cm depth while minimizing contamination. The drills mass and power are consistent with flight systems.
Sample Carousel Sample handling. Drill shavings are placed in this carosel for delivery to instruments and allows for sample storage for scientist ground truthing of rover data.
Panoramic Imager Color camera on a pan/tilt unit. Returns panoramas and high-res images up to 1 mm/pixel resolution. Primary sensor for target selection and understanding science context. This instument can be coupled to the VISNIR spectrometer.
Visible/Near Infrared Spectrometer (VISNIR) Returns spectra in visible and near-infrared wavelengths. Primarily used for mineralogy, may also detect chlorophyll

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