Chile Desert to Prepare Robot for Life on Mars

John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 25, 2003

Scientists on the prowl for life on Mars have trained their sights on the parched Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Scientists believe that if their high-tech robotics succeed in their quest to find life in the Earth's most inhospitable deserts, they may also be able to find life on Mars.

David Wettergreen, a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, described the Atacama as "the most arid desert on Earth. It is what scientists call an end member [ecosystem] in that it has the lowest organic content of anywhere on Earth."

In the Atacama desert, intense ultraviolet radiation from the sun and strong soil oxidants combine to quickly break down organic materials. Scientists believe a similar combination found on Mars could also possibly break apart and isolate any life forms that once existed there—or still do.

So Wettergreen and his colleagues are using the Chilean desert as a Mars proving ground to develop and test a robot equipped with a suite of sensing and imaging technologies designed to take pictures of life on the red planet. The technologies would ultimately be transferred to surface rovers carried on future Mars-bound space missions.

The project is funded by U.S. $3 million in grants from a NASA program dedicated to astrobiology, or space-based life, exploration. The first of three field expeditions departed for the Chilean desert earlier this month. Over the next three years, the researchers hope to improve on the technologies designed for Mars exploration.

Today's robots are able to determine what the environment is like by taking pictures, among other means. "Tomorrow we need to have rovers that are more capable," said Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, who is leading the team for the science investigation of the Atacama.

Hyperion and Analogs

The next generation rovers will use technologies developed for Hyperion, a 6.5 foot (2 meter) wide and 6.5 foot (2 meter) long robot with a 38 foot (3.5 meter) square solar panel for a roof. Named for the Greek word meaning "he who follows the sun," Hyperion is an autonomous robot. It is programmed to operate independently and can determine when to point its solar panel towards the sun.

Hyperion was originally tested on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic in 2001. During that trial, the robot successfully kept its solar panel pointed towards the sun as it traveled for 24 hours along a 3.8-mile (6.1-kilometer) circuit over hilly, rocky terrain. The vehicle returned to its starting point with a set of fully-charged batteries.

Scientists consider the cold, barren, and rocky terrain of Devon Island to be analogous to the terrain on Mars. The island is regularly invaded by researchers with the Mars Society, an Indian Hills, Colorado-based organization dedicated to exploring and ultimately settling Mars.

No single landscape on Earth can ever replicate the Martian planet, Cabrol said. That helps explain why scientists researching Mars exploration frequent places as diverse as the Canadian Arctic and Chilean desert. "We are going to different places depending on what questions we want addressed, so we are addressing very specific questions."

On Devon Island, researchers tested Hyperion's ability to navigate terrain similar to that found on Mars. In the Atacama, researchers will focus on measurements and experiments with the robot's hardware and software components, including its ability to see and test objects of interest for signs of life.

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