Nathalie Cabrol Runs Her Robot Through Its Paces in Chile

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Titan’s Seas Get an Earthly Stand-In as Robot Explores Chilean Lake 

The Planetary Lake Lander is testing autonomous exploration technologies for a future mission to Saturn’s most intriguing moon

By Katie Worth

Early Mars rovers had little more intelligence than a fancy remote-controlled car. NASA’s Curiosity rover is somewhat more evolved: It can navigate around simple obstacles and spot a dust devil on its own.

Much more brainpower would be required for a robotic exploration of Saturn’s moon Titan. Home to one of the solar system’s liveliest environments outside of Earth, Titan has tidal seas of methane, a stormy atmosphere and perhaps ice volcanoes. In 2005, the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe landed on a beach in Titan and transmitted data about its surroundings for 90 minutes; ever since, scientists have been eager to send another probe with more staying power. But because communications from Earth to Titan take hours, the robot would have to solve problems on its own. If it has been floating in a methane sea for months and finally approaches shore, it must begin taking pictures of newly visible land. If a methane-dwelling octopus swims by, engineer Trey Smith of NASA’s Intelligent Robotics Group says, it must notice. He’s only mostly joking.

With the aim of building a robot smart enough for Titan, Smith and a team of other engineers and scientists spent three weeks this month at a remote lake in the high Chilean Andes. They were field-testing the Planetary Lake Lander, an early prototype of a floating space probe that could, among other things, notice an octopus swimming past.

Since no hydrocarbon seas are available on Earth, the researchers, from NASA Ames Research Center and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, Calif., chose to test their probe on a lake under the disappearing Echaurren glacier, an ideal setting for technology that must notice both abrupt and subtle environmental changes.

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