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Seeking Life in Extreme Environments

Robotic field investigation will bring new scientific understanding of the Atacama as a habitat for life with distinct analogies to Mars. Our goal is to make genuine discoveries about the limits of life on Earth and to generate knowledge about life in extreme environments that can be applied to future planetary missions. To conduct this investigation, we will develop robotic astrobiology.

Field investigation over three years will use a rover to make transects of the Atacama with instruments to detect microorganisms and chlorophyll-based life forms and to characterize habitats. The rover will integrate panoramic imagers, microscopic imagers, spectrometers, as well as mechanisms for shallow subsurface access.Robotic considerations in addition to instrument integration include platform configuration, planetary-relevant localization, complex obstacle negotiation, over-the-horizon navigation, and power-cognizant activity planning. An architecture that coordinates these capabilities, provides health monitoring and fault recovery, and allows for variability in the degree of autonomy is vital to long-duration operations.

The measurement and exploration technique produced by this investigation combines long traverses, sampling measurements on a regional scale, and detailed measurements of individual targets. When compared to the state of the art in robotic planetary exploration, our approach will result in dramatic increase in the number of measurements made and data collected by rover instruments per command cycle. This result will translate into substantial productivity increases for future planetary exploration missions.

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Science for Life Seeking
In conducting the first robotic astrobiology survey of the Atacama we have several objectives:

Seek Life: Seek and characterize biota surviving in the Atacama and analyze microhabitats. We will question the hypothesis that the most arid regions of the Atacama represent an absolute desert.

Understand Habitat: Determine the physical and environmental conditions associated with identified past and current habitats, including the search for structural fossils, the monitoring of current biological oases and microorganic communities, and learning how these organisms have contributed to the modification of their environment.

Relevant Science: Develop, integrate, and field test a suite of science instruments that form a complete payload relevant to the NASA Mars Exploration Program and traceable to the Mars Exploration Program Payload Analysis group priority investigations and measurements that will facilitate the exploration of favorable environments for life on Mars in upcoming missions.

Technology for Exploration
To achieve our science objectives we must develop new technologies for robotic astrobiology:

Over-the-Horizon Navigation and Localization: Develop "over-the-horizon" navigation, specifically beyond the local field of view of 1 km per command cycle and comprehensive localization based on odometry, sun position, and local feature/global landmark tracking.

Efficient Resource Utilization: Advance run-time, resource-limited mission planning and sequence generation (power and navigability) to address science objectives and constraints.

Autonomy and Awareness: Establish variable rover autonomy and effective remote scientific investigation (telescience) over low-bandwidth, long-latency communication links. Develop rover self-awareness, monitoring hardware and software elements, for fault detection and recovery.

For further information about robotic astrobiology see the Frequently Asked Questions or contact: Dr. David Wettergreen at +1-412-268-5421 or


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