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Robot Zoe detects life in Atacama Desert

Friday, March 18, 2005
Zoë, a four-wheeled robot constructed by Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, is the first rover-based system to discover life. Although the presence of life in the Chilean Atacama Desert is no surprise, Zoe is a step forward in an effort to design automated systems to find life on Mars.

Zoë, named after the Greek word for "life", is part of a three-year Life in the Atacama project at the Astrobiology Science and Technology Program for Exploring Planets (ASTEP). It was specifically designed to be deployed as a remotely-operated or autonomous rover.

The life Zoë was able to detect came from four elements. Zoë detected signs of chlorophyll, DNA and protein, which are strong indications of life. Scientists then gathered visual evidence from the pictures taken by Zoë. The research was presented this week at the 36th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas. The study was led by Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

One of the important new features developed for Zoë is a fluorescence imager in the shadow under its belly that can be used in daytime. This tool scans for chlorophyll-based-life that would otherwise be rendered undetectable by sunlight. Zoë also carries a spectrometer that scans for chlorophyll using visible and near-infrared light.

Zoë searched for signs of life in coastal and inland regions of the Atacama Desert between August and October of 2004. She was remote conrolled from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania while a ground crew followed her to verify her detections.

With studies suggesting the existence of life on Mars, the new system may soon see implementation.

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