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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 scarce life.

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.

Fluorescence Image

What lives in the Atacama and how can we find it? This image of a tiny lichen on an Atacama rock is highlighted in false color to show the concentration of chlorophyll.

Hyperion Photo

How can rovers explore vast regions? The search for life requires mobility. In order to find scarce micro-organisms, a rover may need to travel to many places.

Hyperion LEDs Photo

How will rovers find life? Several sensors must provide corroborating evidence that life is present. Here an imager records the fluorescence associated with the presence of chlorophyll.


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