Earth. Is there any life here? Nobody knows for sure, although Carl Sagan used the Galileo spacecraft to make an educated guess of "yes" back in 1993. Finding life on planets is a tricky business, as evidenced by the fact that we've so far completely struck out everywhere except our own backyard. It's going to take some practice to figure out where and how to look, which is why a robot named Zoë is heading back to the Atacama Desert in Chile.
The Atacama Desert is a brutal place. It's mostly waterless, and so high up in elevation that the air is thin and solar radiation is significantly higher than normal. Not much lives there: about the only things that can survive are microorganisms, and even they have to hide beneath the surface. This is about as close as we can get to an analog to a planet like Mars, and it's Zoë's job to test out instruments and techniques that could lead to the discovery of life on the red planet.
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.
Previous studies focused on finding life on the surface, but especially on Mars, the subsurface is where it's at. Zoë, created by a team led by Dr. David Wettergreen from Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, might not look as fancy as, say, the Curiosity rover, but it's packing a bunch of science under its solar panel hood, and this time around, there's a fancy new piece of hardware. It's got a drill, baby, a drill!
The drill comes from Honeybee Robotics, and samples that it retrieves will be analyzed by the Mars Microbeam Raman Spectrometer, an early candidate for the 2020 Mars mission (this one). Zoë started her mission this week, and should take one or two drill samples every day. She's got 50 kilometers to cover autonomously in two weeks, and you can keep up with her progress at the website below.