The NASA-funded researchers are studying the Atacama Desert, described as the most arid region on Earth, to understand the desert as a habitat that represents one of the limits of life on Earth. The project, part of NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology Program for Exploring Planets, involves technology experiments to test robotic capabilities for mobility, autonomy and science.
"Identifying living microorganisms and/or fossils in environments where life's density is among the lowest on the planet should provide leads to establish detection criteria and strategies for Mars or other planetary bodies," explained Dr. Nathalie Cabrol of the SETI Institute, Mountain View, Calif., and NASA Ames Research Center, located in California's Silicon Valley. She is the project science lead and co-investigator on the "Life in the Atacama" project.
Scientists from Ames, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the Universidad Catolica del Norte, Antofagasta, Chile, are participating in the study. Scientists are scheduled to conduct their investigation and field experiments in the Atacama through Oct. 21.
They are using Zoe, an autonomous, solar-powered rover developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. During the mission, Zoe is expected to travel about two kilometers (1.24 miles) daily and provide panoramic and close-up images.
Zoe will employ a variety of other scientific instruments to explore the remote desert. The instruments include a visible-to-near-infrared spectrometer and a fluorescence microscopic imager developed by Carnegie Mellon's Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center.