Carnegie Mellon | Robotics Institute | Field Robotics Center | NASA | ASTEP
Life in the Atacama Header

Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe. Robotic astrobiologists search for life on other planets, in order to do this we prepare robots to study life in extreme environments here on Earth to learn how to detect life on other planets. We are trying to understand how life survives in the driest desert on Earth; and in doing so, we are shaping the future of robotic astrobiology.

We have created a rover named Zoë equipped with a drill, cameras, spectrometers and other sensors to detect life and find water.Mapping the distribution of life in the Atacama requires observations across tens of kilometers. Zoë is therefore designed for desert mobility. Its onboard autonomy software allows scientists to explore the Atacama from a remote operations center in Pittsburgh.

Each morning, Zoë receives its daily exploration goals and priorities. Zoë's executive then generates a day-long schedule that maximizes science accomplishments and minimizes resource requirements. This schedule can be modified on the fly by the rover if it finds something of scientific interest. The plan is executed by the navigator that uses stereo vision to determine safe driving commands for the rover.

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 a robotic astrobiologist.

Field investigation over three years will use a rover to make transects of the Atacama with instruments to detect subsurface microorganisms and chlorophyll-based life forms and to characterize habitats. The rover will integrate panoramic imagers, microscopic imagers, spectrometers, as well as mechanisms for 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 the first astrobiology survey (2003-2005) we focused on finding life at the surface, for this second robotic astrobiology survey of the Atacama we are focusing on subsurface life with several objectives:

Seek Life: Seek and characterize subsurface 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 please contact: Dr. David Wettergreen (

The Atacama Desert is the most arid region on Earth. It may also be the most lifeless. In the interior of the desert, rain is measured in millimeters per decade and solar radiation is intense because of the high altitude and thin atmosphere.

Rovers are an important part of our work because they provide mobility to observe and measure with instruments at specific locations. Some of the robotics research includes rover configurations, rover path planning, localazation, long range plannin, and dynamic science planning.

Our three year investigation will use a rover to make long transects in the Atacama. The rover will carry a drill and sensors for detecting life.