Out of this World

Chile: a test run for Mars

Scientists from NASA use new robot to search for life in Chile’s Atacama Desert as a test run for a similar search on the Red Planet.

Monday, July 15, 2013  
Photo by Danielle Pereira / Flickr. Photo by Danielle Pereira / Flickr.

 

Chile’s Atacama Desert has led to many major scientific, out-of-this-world discoveries, mainly thanks to its massive astronomical observatories and dark, clear skies. Now, a new project in the beautiful, arid landscape aims to shed new light on a long held question — could there be life on Mars?

A team from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from the United States is deploying an innovative, solar powered robot to search for life in the Atacama Desert as a test run for similar research to be conducted on our neighbor planet. The rover, named Zoe, started its two week on-site campaign in Chile’s northern desert on June 17th.

The NASA team is searching for microbes that could be living underneath the parched surface of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth. In fact the land is so uniquely dry that certain areas have not seen any rain since record-keeping began. Scientists hope that if Zoe can provide useful data in the Atacama, then similar technology could help researchers find answers on the surface of Mars during a mission set for 2020.

“Scientifically, the study helps us understand how life survives in extreme environments with implications to both Earth and Mars," David Wettergreen, research professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute and principal investigator for the Life in the Atacama project told Space.com.

Zoe, which is part of a NASA astrobiology mission that's led by Carnegie Mellon University and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), has visited Chile before. The rover was at work in the Atacama in 2005 helping NASA detect microorganisms. This time the rover has new tools to do this work completely on its own. Zoe is outfitted now with a 3.3-feet (1 m) drill made by Honeybee Robotics ideal for hunting subsurface microbes, and a soil-analyzing instrument called the Mars Microbeam Raman Spectrometer.

"Technologically, we are learning about the mechanisms and the algorithms that will enable us to explore the subsurface of other planets,” Wettergreen commented.

During the two week campaign, Zoe will be expected to work independently, as a test for a Mars mission. The rover is expected to cover 30 to 50 kilometers(19 to 31 miles) conducting one or two tests a day.

"Zoe is more autonomous than previous rovers and able to operate for days, finding its way from one goal to the next and automatically detecting features of interest that it should examine along the way," Wettergreen said.

The Atacama Desert, with its unique similarities to the Red Planet, has been used as a test for Mars in many ways. In 2010 NASA announced it was building a Moon-Mars Center in the Chajnantor plains near San Pedro de Atacama where it would simulate Mars missions, complete with greenhouses and mobile rocket pads.

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