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Frequently Asked Questions

ďLife in the AtacamaĒ is a three year project to develop technologies and techniques to enable robotic astrobiology while also conducting scientific investigation of life in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile.

What is astrobiology?
Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe. It involves many disciplines from astronomy to biology to geology. Astrobiologists listen for signals from space, search for planets around distant stars, and study life in extreme environments on Earth. By studying life on Earth in the deep ocean, thermal springs, Antarctic ice sheets, and arid deserts, astrobiologists are trying to understand how life adapts and survives so that they may understand where life might exist and how to look for it beyond the Earth.

What is robotic astrobiology and why is it important?
We are developing robotic astrobiology as a means for studying life in extreme environments like the Atacama Desert. Extreme environments are those were one or more environmental factors, such as temperature, pressure, pH, salinity, or radiation that are near the limit of what life can withstand. For many of these investigations it is inconvenient, inefficient, or impossible for people to directly study the environment. Robots, however, might be capable of collecting the necessary measurements. These capabilites for robotic astrobiology will be developed as instruments are integrated and tested under actual operating conditions, robotic systems are able to reliably provide scientific data, and scientists learn the most effective procedures and techniques when using robots to conduct remote investigations. The capabilities and methods we develop studying extreme environments on Earth apply broadly in our solar system.

What is the goal of ďLife in the AtacamaĒ?

Three-Year Goal:
Seek life Establish if the hyper arid region of the Atacama represents an absolute limit to life and understand the gradient of biodiversity and environments
Understand Habitat Understand the strategies used by life to survive in arid environment following climate changes
Relevant Science Design a payload capable of identifying environments for life and test science exploration strategies enabling the positive identification of life (extinct/extant).
Over-the-Horizon Navigation and Localization Exhibit productivity of traverse achieving 1km per command cycle
Efficient Resource Utilization Enable planetary rovers to reason about resources and make on-the-fly decisions to optimize performance
Autonomy and Self-awareness Engage planetary rovers in telescience, managing with minimal communication, while fully aware of themselves and their surroundings

How will ZoŽ search for life?
ZoŽ will act to collect data over large areas in long traverses to better understand the distribution of life in the extreme environment presented by the Atacama Desert. It will conduct traverses as dictated by human astrobiologists and will automatically collect the data that is requested (while maintaining it safety and adequate resources). Along the traverse ZoŽ will collect data from each of its instruments either at regular intervals of time or distance or at specific locations dictated by the astrobiologists.

Will ZoŽ ever go to the Moon or Mars?
No. ZoŽ is a concept vehicle and designed for operation Earth. On other planets or moons, different components would be used, for example space-qualified motors and computers, and some parts would be sized differently. Beyond the Earth, its solar panel would be smaller. ZoŽ incorporates some commercially available components because they are readily available and are optimized for performance here on Earth.

Why the Atacama Desert?
The astrobiology questions to be addressed during the investigation of the Atacama are:

  • Are the most arid regions of the Atacama completely lifeless (absolute desert) and thus constitute a limit for life on Earth?
  • What is the spatial variability of microorganisms and the biodiversity within the Atacama?
  • What specific environmental boundary conditions generate habitats for microorganic life?
  • What are the spatial distribution of these types of habitats?

Who is supporting this research?
Research supported by the NASA Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program, grant NAG5-12890, Michael Meyer, Program Scientist and David Lavery, Program Executive. Research in rover mission planning is supported by the Mars Technology Program, Samad Hayati, Program Manager.

How can I get more information?
Contact Dr. David Wettergreen by telephone at: +1-412-268-5421 or email at:


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