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CMU's Zoe Robot Resumes Search for Life on Earth

If Zoe can find life in the Atacama Desert, she might be able to find life on Mars, too

2 min read
CMU's Zoe Robot Resumes Search for Life on Earth

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.

[ Life in the Atacama ] via [ SETI ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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