If there is one place on Earth that is analogous to Mars, it is Chile's hyper-arid, relatively lifeless Atacama Desert.
That's why NASA sponsored an astrobiology mission led by Carnegie Mellon University and the SETI Institute to return a robot named Zoe to the Atacama Monday in search of subsurface life before it takes the trip to the red planet in 2020.
"What Zoe is doing right now is really putting us on the brink of something big on Mars," said Nathalie Cabrol, principal investigator at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute/NASA Ames Research Center. "We really want to try to dig a little deeper to depths where it might be possible that life is still there."
This two-week field expedition is Zoe's second trip to the Atacama. In 2005, she was the first robot to map microbial life there. Scientists learned that microorganisms are in the desert soil but are scarce. This time she is equipped with a 1-meter drill.
After digging up soil samples, the robot will analyze their mineral and elemental composition.
NASA supported the project with a $3 million grant so Zoe can follow the tracks of the current Mars robot in 2020. Curiosity is now finding life-friendly areas on the Red Planet.
Atop four wheels, Zoe is solar-powered and is about 9 feet long and 6 feet wide.
Scientists hope for multiple days of complete automatic operation when Zoe will follow plans on where to go, how much data to collect and hibernation at night.
For Ms. Cabrol, the expedition is also exciting for new discoveries on our own planet.
"At the same time, it is like if you were a Martian exploring the Earth for the first time, which is good, too," she said.
Marina Weis: 412-263-1889 or email@example.com.