CMU looks for life on Mars and the elements needed to sustain it

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For decades, scientists focused on foreign planet geology, climate and habitability during planetary exploration. Their rovers, guided by radio from satellites on Earth, collected rocks and moon dust and took pictures.

Today, Carnegie Mellon University is looking not only to the moon, but also to Mars for new discoveries. This time its focus is on something Pennsylvanians are pretty familiar with: drilling. Except it's for life and elements needed to sustain it.

Scientists from the area are preparing robots to land and navigate autonomously, analyze their own data and recharge through solar power. Destinations include the moon in search for ice in 2015 and in the desert in preparation for Mars in 2020.

"There's a whole world that's jaded with the idea that there is nothing new under the sun because there is that sense that exploration is done," said William "Red" Whittaker, Astrobotic Technology Inc. CEO and founder of the Field Robotics Center at CMU's Robotics Institute. "When the reality is that it's actually at an accelerative pace."

NASA selected Astrobotic -- a CMU spinoff company -- for flight opportunities on its propulsive lander, which will be the first to execute precision landing on the moon or hazardous asteroids. The rover aboard will be directed to a specific location to drill for ice or other resources, as well as explore skylights or entryways into lunar cave networks.

"This configuration is lighter weight than a lot of what NASA is developing themselves," said John Thornton, president of Astrobotic. "And it's more precise than what a lot of other companies have been developing. The key part about this is that it is similar to autonomous landing here on Earth, but the big, big difference is that it does not use GPS because there is no GPS on the moon."

The Masten Xaero lander will use its laser scanner and stereo camera pair to look for craters and rocks unsafe for landing and redirect itself. The lander will also be able to come back to the same base location.

Astrobotic is first testing the equipment aboard unmanned helicopters before the end of the year when it will test the propulsive lander on Earth -- which is "a little more risky" and "much closer to how we are actually going to be flying when we fly to the moon," Mr. Thornton said.

NASA also gave CMU and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute $3 million to return the robot named Zoe to the Atacama Desert in Chile with a team of scientists from the area. Zoe has been in the desert since June 17, drilling for subsurface life in the hyper-arid desert core. She will be there for another week.

The Atacama is the driest desert in the world and the most analogous environment on Earth to Mars.

NASA's plan is to figure out how to best fit a rover to follow in the tracks of Curiosity -- the rover that is currently finding life-friendly areas on Mars -- in 2020.

Scientists have been working with Zoe since 2004 and learned from past experiments that microbial life is in the Atacama's soils, but it is scarce.

The mission today will focus on gathering scientific data by drilling into the Earth about 1 meter and analyzing soil samples for subsurface life, covering about 30-50 kilometers.

Just as ice can exist on the moon, in the coldness of Antarctica, on deep ocean bottoms and in the dry heat of Earth's deserts, microbial life could exist below the surface of Mars, protected from harmful UV rays.

For exploration expert Nathalie Cabrol, finding the presence of organic material on Mars is "extremely important for mankind."

She said the need for resources is a practical purpose for exploring the planet. It can also have a "profound implication for our research of life in the universe."

A planetary geologist and senior research scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute/NASA Ames, she is also the lead scientist for the Life in the Atacama project.

Researchers ran into challenges when experimenting with Zoe, she said, especially when fitting the rover with both a drill and sensitive instruments, such as a neuron detector that measures hydrogen abundance to quantify moisture and spectrometers to measure mineral and elemental composition of soils.

Leaps in technology armed Zoe with the capability to essentially navigate and recharge itself independently. The plan is for the vehicle to go for days following scientists' plans of how much data to collect, hibernating at night and then automatically starting up again.

"When we receive the data, we have a little bit of analysis from the robot and help to make decisions faster in what's interesting, what relates to your mission objectives and what's less interesting," she said. "Zoe is literally going to help us pick targets of interest for our mission."

Zoe is also making discoveries and mapping part of the Earth, as so little is known of the Atacama.

In addition to the drill made by Honeybee Robotics, other collaborators include the Universidad Catolica del Norte in Chile, University of Tennessee, Washington University and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"We don't know much about life, especially on Mars," she said. "This could be the way one day we get these answers."


Marina Weis: 412-263-1889 or


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