The Atacama Desert is the most arid region on Earth and may contain the fewest number of living organisms of any area on Earth. In the interior of the desert, rain is measured in millimeters per
decade and solar radiation is intense because of the high altitude. Despite this harsh environment, living organisms have been discovered where the desert meets coastal mountains. These organisms survive
on sunlight and fog.
One of the goals of this project is to understand where life can and cannot survive. The
distribution of organisms across the desert, from the interior to the coast,
and the characteristics of survivable habitats are not known.
Rovers are an important part of our work because they provide the mobility needed to
make observations and take scientific measurements at many different locations in the
desert. These observations will allow us to create a map of the distribution of life in the desert. Through our robotic field
investigation, we will provide the scientific community and the general public with a better understanding of the Atacama Desert.
Astrobiology is the study of
life in the universe. As a part of this project, we are creating methods and technologies that will
enable the creation of "robotic astrobiologists" to help scientists in this endeavor. A rover that is being used as a robotic astrobiologist must
carry instruments capable of detecting life and of characterizing desert
habitats. It is also important that scientists learn how to use this type of rover efficiently. We are
formulating and testing exploration strategies that survey broad regions and
many habitats to define effective ways to remotely search for evidence of
Our field investigation over three years will use a rover to make long
transects in the Atacama. The rover will support panoramic imagers, microscopic
imagers, spectrometers, as well as mechanisms for shallow subsurface access.
Additional robotics research questions include issues of robot
configuration, power and mobility planning, localization and navigation, and
autonomy and self-awareness.
Searching for life in the Atacama is in many ways analogous to the search for
clues about the history of life on Mars. Our goal is to make genuine
discoveries about the limits of life on Earth and to gain knowledge about
life in extreme environments that can be applied to future planetary missions.