During this year's visit to the Atacama, researchers will focus on measurements and experiments with the robot's hardware and software components. They will test Hyperion as it travels through the desert and collect data with scientific instruments, including a fluorescence imager, near-infrared spectrometer and a high-resolution panoramic imager.
Wettergreen said that Hyperion would travel some 10 kilometers through the desert this year while the researchers study issues related to robotic autonomy. The robot's solar panels have been laid flat on top of its body for the upcoming experiments so it can capture the maximum amount of sunlight in the equatorial environment. In the Arctic, the panels were mounted vertically, like sails on a boat, because the sun was often low on the horizon.
A next generation robot, developed from the findings of this year's work, should perform 50 kilometers of autonomous traverse in the desert in 2004. In 2005, the final year of the project, a robot equipped with a full array of instruments should operate autonomously as it travels 200 kilometers over a two-month period. During this climactic journey, the robot should map sites where life is abundant, and then move into drier areas where life has not been detected.
In 2005, plans call for the science team to operate as if it were exploring Mars in a scenario that would include a time delay and limited communication. "We'll operate under the constraints of Martian exploration in order to better develop procedures for seeking life on another planet," Wettergreen said. "The robot will monitor its own power, balance, locomotion, communication and science operations as it goes. It needs to be able to move into unknown terrain using cameras and internal sensors--the same instruments and information that would be available to a robot expl