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Robot-based system developed at Carnegie Mellon detects life in Chile's Atacama desert

PITTSBURGH--A unique rover-based life detection system developed by Carnegie Mellon University scientists has found signs of life in Chile's Atacama Desert, according to results being presented at the 36th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference March 14-18 in Houston. This marks the first time a rover-based automated technology has been used to identify life in this harsh region, which serves as a test bed for technology that could be deployed in future Mars missions.

"Our life detection system worked very well, and something like it ultimately may enable robots to look for life on Mars," said Alan Waggoner, Atacama team member and director of the Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center at the university's Mellon College of Science.

The "Life in the Atacama" 2004 field season from August to mid-October was the second phase of a three-year program whose goal is to understand how life can be detected by a rover that is being controlled by a remote science team. The project is part of NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology Program for Exploring Planets, or ASTEP, which concentrates on pushing the limits of technology in harsh environments. David Wettergreen, associate research professor in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, leads rover development and field investigation aspects of the project. Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute, leads the science investigation.

Life is barely discernable over most areas of the Atacama, but the rover's instruments were able to detect lichens and bacterial colonies in two areas: a coastal region with a more humid climate and an interior, very arid region less hospitable to life.

"We saw very clear signals from chlorophyll, DNA and protein. And we were able to visually identify biological materials from a standard image captured by the rover. Taken together, these four pieces of evidence are strong indicators of life," said Waggoner. "No
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Contact: Lauren Ward
wardle@andrew.cmu.edu
412-268-7761
Carnegie Mellon University
15-Mar-2005


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