The group is funded with a $3 million, three-year grant from NASA to the university's Robotics Institute. They are collaborating with scientists at Carnegie Mellon's Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center who have a separate $900,000 grant from NASA to develop fluorescent dyes and automated microscopes that the robot will eventually use to locate various forms of life.
The project falls under NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets or ASTEP program, which concentrates on pushing the limits of technology in harsh environments. NASA experts believe that by pushing the known limits of life on Earth scientists will be better prepared to search for life on other worlds.
"Our goal is to make genuine discoveries about the limits of life on Earth and to generate knowledge that can be applied to future NASA missions to Mars," said project leader David Wettergreen, a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. "We will conduct three annual field experiments in the Atacama. Each time, an increasingly capable robot will use sensing and intelligence to find land forms or environmental conditions that could harbor life."
This year, the team will be using an autonomous, solar-powered robot named Hyperion to determine the optimum design, software and instrumentation for a new robot that will be used in the more extensive experiments to be conducted over the next two years.
In 2001, Hyperion was taken to Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic where it successfully demonstrated a concept called Sun-Synchronous Navigation. It tracked th