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

nsect and stopped occasionally to perform detailed surface inspection, effectively creating a "macroscopic quilt" of geologic and biological data in selected 10 by 10 centimeter panels. After the rover departed a region, the ground truth science team collected samples the rover had examined.

"Based on the rover findings in the field and our tests in the laboratory, there is not one example of the rover giving a false positive," said Edwin Minkley, director of the Center for Biotechnology and Environmental Processes in the Department of Biological Sciences. "Every sample we tested had bacteria in it."

Minkley is conducting analyses to determine the genetic characteristics of the recovered bacteria to identify the different microbial species present in the samples. He also is testing the bacteria's sensitivity to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. One hypothesis is that the bacteria may have greater UV resistance because they are exposed to extreme UV radiation in the desert environment. This characterization also may explain why such a high proportion of the bacteria from the most arid site are pigmented red, yellow or pink as they grow in the laboratory, according to Minkley.

The first phase of the ASTEP project began in 2003 when a solar-powered robot named Hyperion, also developed at Carnegie Mellon, was taken to the Atacama as a research test bed. Scientists conducted experiments with Hyperion to determine the optimum design, software and instrumentation for a robot that would be used in more extensive experiments conducted in 2004 and in 2005. Zo, a brand new robot, was developed in response to what was learned in 2003. In the final year of the project, plans call for Zo, equipped with a full array of scientific instruments, to operate autonomously as it travels 50 kilometers over a two-month period.

The science team, led by Cabrol, is made up of geologists and biologists who study both Earth and Mars at institutions including NASA's
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Contact: Lauren Ward
wardle@andrew.cmu.edu
412-268-7761
Carnegie Mellon University
15-Mar-2005


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