Carnegie Mellon's robot 'Zoe' on mission to desert, then Mars featuring Nathalie Cabrol

By Marina Weis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If there is one place on Earth that is analogous to Mars, it is Chile's hyper-arid, relatively lifeless Atacama Desert.

That's why NASA sponsored an astrobiology mission led by Carnegie Mellon University and the SETI Institute to return a robot named Zoe to the Atacama Monday in search of subsurface life before it takes the trip to the red planet in 2020.

"What Zoe is doing right now is really putting us on the brink of something big on Mars," said Nathalie Cabrol, principal investigator at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute/NASA Ames Research Center. "We really want to try to dig a little deeper to depths where it might be possible that life is still there."

This two-week field expedition is Zoe's second trip to the Atacama. In 2005, she was the first robot to map microbial life there. Scientists learned that microorganisms are in the desert soil but are scarce. This time she is equipped with a 1-meter drill.

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