NASA Testing Mars Prototype Drilling Robot in Chilean Desert

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NASA is testing Zoë, its Mars prototype drilling robot, in the Chilean desert. Zoe will be able to drill a meter down into the soil of Mars to search for life underneath the surface of the planet.

Testing of the robot began just this month. It’s a part of NASA’s ongoing search for evidence of life on the Red Planet, as Mars is often called.

Zoë, is a solar-powered, autonomous robot. It’s  equipped with onboard sensors, cameras, and a one-meter drill. Using its drill, the robot will attempt to find and analyze soil samples from Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest on Earth, before it tries to do the same thing on Mars.

The Life in the Atacama Project, led by Carnegie Mellon University and the SETI Institute, was launched earlier this month. NASA has begun to test a variety of new technologies that could be used on the craft that replaces the Curiosity rover in 2020.

According to  experts who say any life would likely exist well below the Martian surface, Zoë is explicitly designed to search for signs of microbial life that might be there.

David Wettergreen, research professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, said in a statement earlier this month:

Direct evidence of life, if it exists, is more likely underground, beyond the current reach of rovers,” “Chances improve with greater depth but we are first developing one-meter capability and integrating with a mobile robot.”

The Atacama Desert was chosen by researchers because its dry conditions mimic those observed on Mars. Zoë, controlled remotely by US researchers, began its tour of the desert on June 17th. It will conclude testing on Sunday.

Researchers in previous field tests focused on the robot’s autonomous capabilities, but in these tests in the Chilean desert,the focuse has been on Zoë’s ability to gather and analyze samples.

According to Wettergreen:

Now, we think of the robot as a tool to collect specific data from specific locations, rather than as a machine that drives around,” Wettergreen said.

The dry Atacama Desert has been used before by NASA and others, as it’s a great place to set up astronomical telescopes. Because of its dry climate and high altitude –about 10,000 feet above sea level– both researchers and filmmakers have used the Atacama Desert for their work.

A group of researchers for Science in 2003 recreated the tests used by the Viking 1 and Viking 2 Mars landers to detect life on the red planet. They were unable to find any signs of life in the Atacama soil.

The Atacama is also a testing site for the NASA-funded Earth-Mars Cave Detection Program and NASA researchers have also used work from the Phoenix Mars Lander in the area.

The high altitude, nearly non-existent cloud cover, dry air, and lack of light pollution and radio interference have made the Atacama one of the world’s best places for astronomical observations.

It won’t be long before NASA’s testing of Zoë, the Mars prototype drilling robot, moves from the Atacama Desert of Chile to the even harsher environment of Mars.

Written by: Douglas Cobb

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