Carnegie Mellon Innovations Lab and NASA Researchers Exploring Mojave Desert-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon Innovations Lab and NASA Researchers Exploring Mojave Desert

Researchers from the Carnegie Mellon Innovations Lab (CMIL) at Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley worked side-by-side in collaboration with a NASA science team led by world-renowned astrobiologist Dr. Chris McKay and partners from the Northern California Mars Society group, a non-profit organization supporting Mars exploration and conducting private research, during a successful three-day science mission to the Mojave Desert.

The main objective of this joint expedition was to study the extremely fragile microbial environment of the desert floor via remote sensing technologies deployed on Senseta MAX 5 Rovers. Annual expeditions of such kind will allow the researchers to track the effects of global warming on microorganisms living in the topsoil. Additionally, the data collected on this joint expedition will be assembled and integrated into a new NASA teaching software called the “Virtual Mojave Environment”.

The primary ground robotics elements deployed during this Mojave expedition consisted of three Senseta MAX 5 Rovers, a research platform developed by the CMIL and sold by Senseta, a Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley spin-off specializing in aerospace technologies and unmanned intelligent systems founded by CMIL director Dr. Khalid Al-Ali.

NASA has already purchased a total of six Senseta MAX 5 Rovers, three of which are operated by Dr. McKay, and is looking into purchasing more. "The MAX 5 rovers are just what we need for our research. They are easy to operate - very user-friendly - and they can move over the desert surface with much less damage than a human footstep. They are also a big hit with the teachers and students. Everybody likes them." said McKay.

Andrew Klofas, a research engineer at CMIL, joined the expedition to the Mojave Desert. "Having the rovers take photos of the terrain allows NASA and the Mars Society to see in great detail the entire topographical area. The images will be high-resolution in a low field of view, and then can be stitched together much like the way GigaPan [another Carnegie Mellon University developed technology] uses lots of smaller pictures to produce one very large image," said Klofas.

The Northern California Mars Society also utilized two MAX rovers to gain experience deploying these rovers for education and outreach purposes as well as Mars analogue missions, which they conduct at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah and the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island, Canada.

The Mojave expedition is considered a great success; meeting all and more of the mission objectives. "We were pleased to partner with Dr. McKay in his expedition. His team is the first adopter of the MAX rover using it as a scientific tool to conduct cutting-edge astrobiology investigation, and their input and uses will guide the development of the rovers," said Al-Ali. “This mission was yet another great example of how a carefully orchestrated collaboration between government, non-profit, and for-profit entities can lead to ground-breaking research advancements otherwise not possible.”