NASA Robot Searching the Desert for Signs of Life Could Later Be Used on Mars

PHOTO: Zoe the Robot
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While Curiosity is off snapping photos of everything it finds on the surface of Mars (including itself), another NASA project aims to be a little more selective in its search. The latest version of their robot prototype Zoë, named after the Greek word for life, can drill through soil and analyze both the mineralogical and biological composition of whatever it scoops up.

Unlike Curiosity, which usually says "life could have been supported here," Zoë can more assertively say, "life is right here in front of us." The robot is currently testing its life-detecting abilities by trawling across the harsh environment of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

David Wettergreen, one of the lead investigators behind Zoë and a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says that the robot has been an ongoing project for about a decade. Despite the many years of work he has put into the project, he doesn't see it leaving the Earth. "It's more like a functional prototype, rather than a space-worthy vehicle," he told ABC News.

While Zoë was always intended to scout the Atacama Desert, the technology that the robot sports could be implemented into future NASA projects. Since 2004, the scientists and engineers behind Zoë equip it with a new suite of tools that improve its life-seeking capabilities, as well as updates to its navigation tools and its artificial intelligence.

This year's expedition in the desert marks the debut of a drill that can penetrate and collect soil at different depths up to one meter, as well as the debut of the Mars Microbeam Raman Spectrometer which analyzes the soil and determines its elemental and mineral composition. In addition, the Bio Ultraviolet Fluorescence Instrument will be able to detect fluorescent organic molecules, such as chlorophyll among others, indicating that there is life within the soil that Zoë collects.

Wettergreen also says that this year, Zoë will be testing some technology that he refers to as "science autonomy." Rather than sending a flood of data back for a human to sift through and analyze, Zoë will learn how to determine whether its picked up something interesting. If Zoë doesn't pick up anything but clumps of the same old soil, it can decide to start sampling elsewhere. "The robot can make better decisions about its measurements," said Wettergreen.

Though Zoë may not be bound for the red planet, different parts of its tech may find home aboard the 2020 Mars Mission. Wettergreen says, "I don't know what exactly will be on [that mission], but we're getting the technology ready."

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