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Will This Work on Mars? Testing the Limits in Atacama Desert

Michele Berger
Published: July 1, 2013

Zoe sets out bravely in the Atacama. The rover, which carries instruments that are candidates for future missions to Mars, spent two weeks in the desert, one of the harshest environments on Earth and the one that most closely resembles Mars. (A. Wang)

Want to test how equipment will fare on Mars? Head to Chile’s Atacama Desert. That’s precisely what a team of NASA-backed researchers did with a rover named Zoe.

Under NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets—ASTEP, for short—researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Jet Propulsion Lab, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Tennessee, and Honeybee Robotics took the robotic astrobiologist out for a two-week test spin in one of our planet’s harshest climes.

With just 0.004 inches of annual rainfall, Atacama is the driest place on earth. It also has high levels of UV radiation, relatively low atmospheric pressure, high altitude and big temperature swings from day to night, says Alian Wang, part of the rover testing team. “On earth you cannot find Mars, so you find someplace similar,” says the researcher, who remotely operated her machinery from her lab at Washington University in St. Louis. “That’s why we go to Atacama.”

The desert-based team worked from sunrise to sunset each day to allow Zoe—which, like previous Mars rovers, runs on solar power—the maximum amount of driving time. From June 17 to the 29, the team pushed the rover’s capabilities, Wang says. “We drove a [long] distance and drilled a lot of holes and did a lot of measurements,” she adds.

Wang focused specifically on the Mars Microbeam Raman Spectrometer, which analyzed the samples the drill pulled up; she and her colleagues plan to propose it to NASA for the 2020 Mars mission.

This is the second year of the team’s three-year project. During year one, the scientists simply brought the tools to Atacama to see whether they’d function; in 2014, the team will likely head to Chile during a slightly different season (this year, it was winter) and to a different location.

Zoe, and all the equipment the robot carried, didn’t disappoint, Wang says. “It worked pretty well,” she says, adding, “It was a very fun trip.”

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