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Research robot readies for desert duty

The 3-year NASA project to test a "search for life" robot is gearing up for one last trip to the Chilean desert. Photos: Robot's desert trek

A 3-year NASA project to test a "search for life" robot will soon come to an end, but not before one last trip to the Chilean desert.

"Zoe," a solar-powered rover that resembles a go-cart, is a prototype of an artificially intelligent "astro-biologist," or a robot that can explore and study life in harsh climates. It's been developed and tested by Carnegie Mellon University and NASA's Ames Research Center, which expects to use the underlying technology in future Mars missions.

Zoe, research robot

Zoe and a team of researchers will leave in two weeks for a third and final mission to the Atacama Desert in Chile, where the robot will travel alone across about 110 miles in two months, studying the driest desert on Earth.

"Our goal with this final investigation is to develop a method to create a real-time, 3D topographic 'map' of life at the microscopic level," said Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames and the SETI Institute.

"This map eventually could be integrated with satellite data to create an unprecedented tool for studies of large-scale environmental activities on life in specific areas," she added.

Last year, the robot found signs of life in the harsh climate of the Atacama Desert, where life is barely discernable. Zoe is outfitted with scientific instruments to find and identify microorganisms, and then to characterize their habitats. One of its instruments, a Fluorescence Imager, or FI, was able to detect lichens and bacterial colonies by detecting chlorophyll, carbohydrates and proteins. The areas where it detected life were a coastal region with more humidity and a dry interior region.

This year, Zoe will travel to areas including the dry Andean Altiplano, which is within the desert's arid interior and often receives no precipitation for decades at a time. The scientists intend to use Zoe to "see" with the use of sensors how densely an area is populated with organisms and map their distribution. They also hope to make advances in procedural developments such as how the robot decides where to explore.

During its trek, the rover will be guided remotely from an operations center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where the researchers will characterize the environment, seek clear proof of life and map the distribution of various habitats.

The $3 million search-for-life project started in 2003 under NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology Program for Exploring Planets, or ASTEP.