Carnegie Mellon’s Solar-Powered Zoë Rover Heads To Chile’s Atacama Desert Learning To Search for Signs of Life-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Carnegie Mellon’s Solar-Powered Zoë Rover Heads To Chile’s Atacama Desert Learning To Search for Signs of Life

PITTSBURGH—From August to mid-October 2004, Carnegie Mellon’s solar-powered rover Zoë, developed for NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology Program for Exploring Planets (ASTEP), will explore two locations in Chile’s Atacama Desert looking for evidence of life and survivable habitats. The first is a coastal region where life is more likely to be found. The second is an interior region of the desert that contains few, if any, living organisms.

The robot’s payload includes three camera systems: one high-resolution panoramic imager atop the rover to guide the team in deciding where Zoë should travel each day; a navigation camera on the front of the rover to guide it over the desert terrain; and a workspace camera underneath the rover for close-up inspection of the ground.

Other instruments include a visible/near-infrared spectrometer to detect both geologic signatures that could indicate life habitats and chlorophyll, a plant-produced pigment. A fluorescence imager located below the rover will be used to detect the presence of molecules indicative of life. The rover will also test a small plow to expose shallow subsoils.

“We are hopeful that we will be able to unambiguously detect life in the samples we examine,” said Alan Waggoner, Atacama team member and director of Molecular Biosenor and Imaging Center at the university’s Mellon College of Science.

Waggoner is part of an effort that includes principal investigator William L. “Red” Whittaker, Fredkin Research Professor of Robotics, and David Wettergreen, who leads the rover development and field investigation and is principal investigator for the Science on the Fly project, which will enable a robot to interpret data from science instruments as it executes its plans.

This year, the team will test other key aspects of rover design, including a “rover executive” that acts like the rover’s conscience in making it aware of its surroundings and in helping it to overcome any navigational problems. An “instrument manager” will calibrate instruments and coordinate their observations.

For this year’s mission, the scientists are creating an extensive database of their findings. On a typical day, the rover will wake up and follow a path designated the previous day by the remote operations science team located in Pittsburgh. The rover will follow a transect and stop occasionally to perform detailed surface inspection, effectively creating a “macroscopic quilt” of geologic and biological data in 10 by 10 centimeter panels. After the rover departs a region, a “ground truth” science team will collect samples examined by the rover and perform independent analyses. At the end of the day, the rover will stop, send data to the remote science team, and go to sleep. The remote science team will then analyze the data and send instructions for the next day’s operations. The remote science team will be working with a sophisticated science tools Web site that allows them to zero in on images within a panoramic image, graph data, query their data, and search through text and images.

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’re interested not only in rovers but in how scientists can best use rovers. We’ll operate under the constraints of Mars exploration to develop procedures for seeking life on another planet,” Wettergreen said. “The robot will monitor its own power, communication and instruments and be able to navigate autonomously between science sites. It needs to travel in unknown terrain using cameras and internal sensors—the same instruments and information that would be available to a robot exploring Mars.”

In addition to Wettergreen and Waggoner, the Carnegie Mellon team heading to the Atacama will include James P. Teza, senior research engineer; Michael D. Wagner, senior research programmer; Dominic Jonak, research programmer; Stuart Heys, research engineer; and Robotics Institute doctoral students Paul Tompkins and Trey Smith.

The science team, led by Dr. Nathalie Cabrol of NASA Ames Research Center, is made up of geologists and biologists who study both Earth and Mars at institutions including NASA’s Ames Research Center and Johnson Space Center, SETI Institute, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Tennessee, Carnegie Mellon and Universidad Catolica del Norte (Chile).

For educational and public outreach, Zoë’s activities will be accessible through the Carnegie Mellon-developed EventScope public Web interface (www.eventscope.org). Eventscope will be downloadable so that people will be able to witness daily operations.

EventScope converts data from rovers and orbiters into three-dimensional “virtual worlds” that realistically represent remote sites, enabling students to experience the mission from their classroom computers. This year, museum versions of this science interface will be installed at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Adler Museum in Chicago, and museums in Australia and Chile. EventScope’s team is directed by Peter Coppin, a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, and includes experts in software engineering, interactive art and educational technology working to develop next-generation tools for public remote experience. The goal is to have hundreds of students participating remotely in the Atacama experience by the end of 2005.

By: Lauren Ward