Zoe’s first expedition to the Atacama Desert in 2005. Image source: Byron Spice, Carnegie Mellon University.
The first robot to map microbial life is set to return to the place of its first success on a new NASA astrobiology mission.
The robot, named Zoe, first rose to prominence when it traversed the Atacama Desert, Chile in 2005 in order to test analytical techniques and scientific instrumentation vital to the search for life on Mars.
Now Zoe is returning to the world’s driest desert in order to continue this work and help NASA decide how to equip the rover it has destined for Mars in 2020 to follow in the footsteps of the Curiosity rover that is currently exploring the surface of the Red Planet.
Autonomous operation of the robot
The robot’s task will be to bore down into the ground below the desert and analyse soil samples
for the presence of microorganisms living below ground level, with an anticipated 1-2 drilling operations every day across an traverse of around 30-50km.
However, whereas Zoe’s last mission was focussed more on the autonomous operation of the robot, this time around gathering scientific data is the primary focus of the mission.
David Wettergreen, research professor in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute and the principal investigator for the Life in the Atacama project, recently emphasised this:
Now, we think of the robot as a tool to collect specific data from specific locations, rather than as a machine that drives around.
A main technical goal of the new mission is to have Zoe perform sample collecting to set scientific specifications completely autonomously for several days consecutively.
Zoe is a hefty 9x6 ft in size, and carries on board a wide range of unique and innovative scientific equipment.
Importantly, the robot is completely solar-powered, and it is hoped that it will generally hibernate overnight and start up automatically the next day at sunrise. To facilitate this, a 32m solar array comprising high-efficiency gallium arsenide solar cells is being used to generate power.
The Zoe robot will use a one-meter drill, shown here protruding above the robot's solar cell deck, to search for subsurface life in Chile's Atacama Desert. Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute and the SETI Institute are leading the NASA-sponsored field experiment. Image Credits: Carnegie Mellon University
The robot has been fitted with a meter-long drill made by Honeybee Robotics to collect samples, which the robot’s auger then dredges up for analysis.
Included in the on-board analysis equipment is a Mars Microbeam Raman Spectrometer, which can easily identify the composition of the soil.
The 3 year project, supported by a $3 million grant from NASA, is led by Carnegie Mellon
University and the SETI Institute and includes collaborators at Universidad Catolica del Norte in Chile, the University of Tennessee, Washington University and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Last year, a team of scientists carried out first-hand analyses in the Atacama using neutron detectors, spectrometers and other instrumentation in order to provide a comparison for the data automatically collected by the robot on its mission, which begins 17th June.
Dry lake in Yungai, Atacama. Image Credits: Nathalie Cabrol