Chile Desert to Prepare Robot for Life on Mars

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Life Sensors and Autonomy

Alan Waggoner, a biological scientist with Carnegie Mellon's Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center, is leading the development of special fluorescent dyes and automated microscopes that Hyperion will eventually use to find microscopic forms of life.

"The idea is we will be able to put a very fine mist on rocks or soil that will stain microorganisms and biofilms with dyes that will make themselves visible for microscope analysis," said Waggoner.

The fluorescent dyes are activated when they bind to certain types of molecules commonly found in living organisms such as proteins, DNA, lipids, or carbohydrates, explained Waggoner. Bound to their targets, the dyes glow a specific color when illuminated with artificial light.

"You'd get false signal if you got any one of the colors. But if you saw all four coming from the same spot you'd be certain it is a microbe or living cell in the way we know life is," said Waggoner. The imaging components of this technology will be tested this year in Chile. The entire system is slated to be operational by 2005.

Hyperion will also travel about six miles (ten kilometers) through the desert this year, as the researchers test the robot's ability to function autonomously. Back in the U.S. the researchers will use their collected data to re-work and re-write the computer software that gives Hyperion its independence.

"It can navigate. Now it needs [the ability] to reason about communication as well as science instruments: How to use them, when to deploy, how to schedule power usage and timing so it has all the resources it needs when called on," said Wettergreen.

Researchers will develop later generations of the robot for testing in 2004 and 2005, based on this year's desert trials.

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