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Autonomous Robot Finds Life in Atacama Desert 124

Posted by timothy
from the dry-wit dept.
Neil Halelamien writes "Nature and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report that a NASA-funded "robotic astrobiologist" named Zoë (a successor to the Hyperion rover) has found life in Chile's Atacama desert. The Atacama is the Earth's driest desert, with steep slopes and rugged terrain. This is the first robot to remotely detect life, finding bacteria (and lichens, in the less dry areas) by using a fluorescent imager. The robot could also spray special dyes to detect life signatures like DNA, protein, lipids, and carbohydrates. Zoë's next assignment will be to autonomously sample soil over 50 kilometers of the Atacama. The Atacama desert is thought to be similar to Mars; instruments similar to those used on the 1970s Viking missions have previously failed to detect life there."
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Autonomous Robot Finds Life in Atacama Desert

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  • by Eternally optimistic (822953) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:07PM (#11986544)
    Most likely, the researchers who put the robot in the desert didn't wash their feet properly.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:07PM (#11986547)
    A lot of the serious speculation that I have read is that life may exist well under the surface.
  • how dry is dry? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MC68000 (825546) <brodskie@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:08PM (#11986551)
    Just an interesting tidbit, it has not rained in the Atacama desert for 100s of years.

    http://www.extremescience.com/DriestPlace.htm
    • Re:how dry is dry? (Score:4, Informative)

      by double-oh three (688874) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:46PM (#11986800)
      Huh? Even the site you linked says it does rain from time to time, just rarely.

      "The annual rainfall (or lack of it) defines a desert, but that doesn't mean that it never rains in Atacama. "
      • Guess he was not specific enough. The TFA's sidebar says:

        "Some places in the Atacama Desert have not had rainfall for over 400 years!"

        That's like... the Anti-Seattle.
        • Hey, this winter we're having a drought. At least its a drought by our standards (I look out the window and notice it's raining right now).
    • Just an interesting tidbit, it has not rained in the Atacama desert for 100s of years.

      As others have pointed out, it's only some parts of the Atacama that haven't had rain in hundreds of years. It stretches from the coast to the Andes, so it's big enough for some rain to occur.

      In fact, a wonderful event happens every once in a while. Some seeds remain dormant in the sand, and when it rains, they are revived, and thousands of flowers suddenly blossom covering large patches of desert. We call it "desie

  • IANABiologist (Score:4, Insightful)

    by thedustbustr (848311) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:08PM (#11986552)
    Why would life on mars necessarily be DNA-based, and why would protiens and lipids nessarily evolve if life evolves? Certainly, other methods of reproduction may have evolved.
    • Re:IANABiologist (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Toresica (788403) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:11PM (#11986585)
      Sure, we might not recognise life if we find it. But we know DNA-based life works - why not look for it?

      I've heard speculation that the first microbes might have come to Earth from Mars - if so, it would likely be somewhat similar to life here.
      • > I've heard speculation that the first microbes might have come to Earth from Mars

        There are numerous problems with that theory. Mars was only debatably suitable for life production for a short time around 3.8 billion years ago. Before that, it was affected by the late heavy bombardment, as was earth, that would have made any form of life impossible. Not long after that, the atmosphere on Mars became such that it would have not been able to produce life -- any liquid water would have boiled due to th
    • Re:IANABiologist (Score:4, Insightful)

      by KitFox (712780) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:18PM (#11986628)
      Why would life on mars necessarily be DNA-based, and why would protiens and lipids nessarily evolve if life evolves? Certainly, other methods of reproduction may have evolved.

      I actually have to agree with this observation completely. If we consider that our definition of life seems to include specific chemicals and processes and results, and that we really have no other definitions of life, then I suppose that we have no other choice but to see in tunnel vision.

      The issue I think is that perhaps we have too strict a definition of "what is necesary for life". Consider: With the recent article [slashdot.org] on self-replicating rapid prototypers, how far are we away from the possibility of machines that can consume raw materials, process them to create power and more complex materials, and possibly reproduce new copies of themselves? That fits the most basic definition of 'life' already. But there's no DNA, or protiens, or any other such things involved.

      Maybe we need to start revising our views on what constitutes "signs of life" if we want to have accurate findings. Either that or realize that we can only search for "Life as we know it" specifically.

      • Our definition of life is reproducing consuming agents. Just how less specific can one be?

        Don't get confused. Just because we only know how to look for one kind of life, and therefore only look for that kind of life, doesn't mean that we've turned around and changed what life means. It's just, well, how do you make a detector for something you have no idea how works? I mean, they're just NASA. It's not like they're rocket scientists or anything.
    • Re:IANABiologist (Score:5, Interesting)

      by flyingsquid (813711) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:36PM (#11986736)
      Why would life on mars necessarily be DNA-based, and why would protiens and lipids nessarily evolve if life evolves? Certainly, other methods of reproduction may have evolved.

      One possibility is that the Martian life and Earth life are related. If rocks can be blown off the surface of Mars and land here- and presumably, vice-versa- it's quite possible that in the early days around 3-4 billion years ago, impact ejecta formed a sort of interplanetary shuttle service for microbes. If Mars became habitable before Earth, it's even possible life actually evolved there, and then was seeded here.

    • Psht, why does alien life have to have the same chirality as Earthly life? NASA or any other space agency could just redo the old Viking experiment. This was covered recently [newscientist.com] on Slashdot. A little more can be found here [rednova.com].
    • Reminds me of that old "Final Exam" question:

      Biology: Create life. Estimate the differences in subsequent human culture
      if this form of life had developed 500 million years earlier, with special
      attention to its probable effect on the English Parliamentary System. Prove
      your thesis.
    • Re:IANABiologist (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Decaff (42676)
      Why would life on mars necessarily be DNA-based, and why would protiens and lipids nessarily evolve if life evolves? Certainly, other methods of reproduction may have evolved.

      Because life has almost certainly been regularly transferred throughout the solar system as a result of meteors. A meteor strike can splash material away from the site of impact at speeds greater than the escape velocity of Earth or Mars or any other inner-solar-system planet. This is why we find 'Martian meteorites' on Earth. It
    • Agreed. This is the problem with SETI etc.: they're looking for radio waves, which is what WE choose to make, in a certain kind of human society that just happens to be successful dominant at the moment. If we ever find aliens, I'm not even sure we'll be able to find a common frame of reference, never mind a compatible communication technology, or recognisable DNA. Still, I guess there's a good chance that any lifeform will break down known energy sources in a known way, thereby producing detectable by-p
      • by dakirw (831754)

        Very true. More advanced civilizations may have gone into stealth mode to avoid being detected by more aggressive/hostile civilizations. If so, our radio transmissions might be causing us a lot of problems in the future.

        It would be ironic if our demise really was due to pop culture.

    • Why would life on mars necessarily be DNA-based, and why would protiens and lipids nessarily evolve if life evolves? Certainly, other methods of reproduction may have evolved.

      The markers that were sprayed to be illuminated with the UV source were chosen with detection of DNA etc specifically in mind, but the approach is more general. Since Mars has a (slightly) oxidising atmosphere (from photolytic dissociation of water in the upper atmosphere), then the successful detection of any appreciable quantity of

  • Answers! (Score:3, Funny)

    by RobertTaylor (444958) <roberttaylor1234 AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:08PM (#11986560) Homepage Journal
    The big question is will they find life on Earth?
    • Re:Answers! (Score:3, Funny)

      by Timesprout (579035)
      No, the big question is will they find intelligent life on Earth.
      • No, the big question is will they find intelligent life on Earth.

        They haven't studied cats or dolphins enough yet to figure it out. ;)

        • Re:Answers! (Score:4, Interesting)

          by mikael (484) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @06:32PM (#11987053)
          They haven't studied cats or dolphins enough yet to figure it out. ;)


          Whenever I run the various OpenGL demos on my computer, it's always funny to see one of our cats lift up a paw and try and "catch" the rotating object (eg torus) or even just the cursor. The most interesting reaction was when 'glgears' was running, and I couldn't understand why my cat kept looking at the power button. Then I realized it was essentially the symbol of the green gear.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:09PM (#11986566)
    ...we can start looking for intelligent beings.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:10PM (#11986571)
    I can't believe it.. must be a software error...
  • by sonsonete (473442) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:10PM (#11986573) Homepage

    Just out of curiosity, does anyone know how much was spent to create this robot? Or, how big is it (the pictures make it look small, but they can be deceiving)? I'm just curious about the likelihood of devices like this going to Mars any time soon.

  • Wtf? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:10PM (#11986581)
    They're sending mars landers to a desert now?

    Yeah, thats cheap... I guess NASA's budget has been cut again.
  • ...demands pay rise and more more holidays.
  • You don't want to disturb the natives [breathe.com] on Mars. I know I don't want to listen to Hank Williams music to get rid of them should we make them angry.
  • The Atacama desert is in this region [tinyurl.com]. I think that link will work, at least it did on my machine.
  • Ah, Lichens [wikipedia.org]...

    "Lichens are symbiotic organisms made up by the association of microscopic green algae or cyanobacteria and filamentous fungi."

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Autonomous Robot Finds Life in Atacama Desert

    "The robot, named Zoe, escaped from a Palo Alto robotics research laboratory earlier this year. Scientists assumed it was lost until tourists photographed it in a remote part of the Atacama desert this week. In a statement to the police the robot said "I'm not going back to the lab. I've made friends out here, why would I leave?"
  • Hmmm... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by PyWiz (865118)
    The Atacama desert is thought to be similar to Mars; instruments similar to those used on the 1970s Viking missions have previously failed to detect life there.

    Let me get this straight, these robots failed to detect life on earth, yet we spend billions of dollars to send them to Mars where they would, once again, fail to find life? Hurrah for the federal bureaucracy!
  • by dahlek (861921) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:24PM (#11986665) Homepage
    ... instruments similar to those used on the 1970s Viking missions have previously failed to detect life there.

    Whatever happened with that study about the chemical reactions they found on Mars - and thought was life at first - following the day-cycle (the 25 hours of sunlight on Mars or something similar)? I thought the verdict was still out on this?

  • homegrown (Score:5, Funny)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:26PM (#11986680) Homepage Journal
    Good thing they didn't demo the device before Congress: there's certainly no intelligent life to detect there.
  • Life on mars bit (Score:4, Informative)

    by PxM (855264) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:32PM (#11986717)
    It should be noted that the claim about whether life on Mars exists is not without contrevery. Levin contends [spherix.com] that the Viking probes did detect evidence of life on Mars based on biochemical signatures. This past evidence is now supported by the belief that Mars might have an organic methane source. There is also some evidence that Viking detected a circadian rhythm, but like all conclusions draw on such a limited data set, there are a lot of interpretations.

    --
    Want a free iPod? [freeipods.com]
    Or try a free Nintendo DS, GC, PS2, Xbox. [freegamingsystems.com] (you only need 4 referrals)
    Wired article as proof [wired.com]
  • by tinrobot (314936) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:41PM (#11986764)
    Because they went out on a Saturday night.

    During the week, the Atacama desert is really dead.
    • Not so! Come on down to the Funk Shack behind that scree outcrop on Mesa 5. Tuesday night is hardcore jungle tunes, DJ Phage in da house spinnin' the wheels of steel. Phat ass bass, in yer face. Stillsuit recommended.
  • by Red_Icculus (866366) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:44PM (#11986792) Homepage
    We should send Google to search for life on Mars.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 19, 2005 @05:54PM (#11986843)
    "...The robot could also spray special dyes to detect life signatures like DNA, protein, lipids, and carbohydrates..."

    In related news, Atacama tribe sues NASA for building spray-painting robot, spoiling natural habitat of ancient desert. NASA plans bigger robot equipped with boom box and head scarf to verify once and for all that life does not exist there. "Instead of trying to find life, we figured we just keep making our robots more and more annoying until some alien shows up with a ray gun."
  • dyes? (Score:3, Funny)

    by CaptainPinko (753849) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @06:27PM (#11987019)

    "The robot could also spray special dyes to detect life signatures like DNA, protein, lipids, and carbohydrates."

    Hopefully they are non-toxic. Otherwise "Good news: we found life. Bad news: we just killed it". Especially if you are looking for life in difficult landscapes you don't know how endangered something is.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 19, 2005 @07:03PM (#11987227)
    So the Atacama is similar to Mars? Well both may be dry, but the Atacama temperature range is 0..25'C, and Mars is, well, a lot colder?

    Don't just assume this robot will function correctly on Mars at Martian temperatures (or even after the space travel at inter-stellar temperatures (let a alone the radiation)), or that its various detection methods that function happily in the -10..+35'C zone will work happily at Martian temperatures and atmospheric pressures.

    Interesting that the article didn't mention either of these, and a quick scan of the Slashdot replies missed these relatively obvious problems.
    • If NASA decides to send a version of this to Mars, they will absolutely redesign it to make sure it can operate under Martian conditions, and then test it in a thermal/vacuum chamber at real Martian temperatures and pressures before they let it fly. Also, they will subject it to simulated launch vibrations. Testing for radiation endurance is usually done at the microchip level before assembly rather than with the finished instrument.

      This process is somewhat expensive, but an incredible bargain compare

  • i'm just wondering why is it that when probes and satalights and robots takes ages to goto the other planets in are system that they don't send a whole load at once? I mean if it is because we can only send up a certin size and weight why don't we brake up a probe into smaller bits and send each bit up into orbit like we do with the station? then when all the bits are up there we just strap them together and send the whole load off that way even if one or two bots or devices don't work some will and we wou
  • I've been there (Score:4, Informative)

    by hey! (33014) on Saturday March 19, 2005 @10:25PM (#11988301) Homepage Journal
    It is incredibly dry.Along the coast, there is some very sparse plant life sustained by camachaca -- a mist that blows in off the sea for a few hours in the morning. Except at a few places like Pan de Azucar national park the camachaca doesn't reach very far inland, so plant life drops of dramatically within a km of the coast. A brief hike inland brings you to a blasted, arid, and apprenlty sterile moonscape. I liked to jog inland in the cool, bright and dry early morning.

    If you're anywhere near habitation, it's not unusual to see bits of garbage and bits of toilet paper from campers blowing around -- without moisture to break it down it hangs around forever. Archaeologists have found Inca textiles that had been dropped in the Atacama desert that after 500 year were in nearly perfect condition.

    When I was there, it had been over five years since the last rainfall. Yet the following year, they had a small rain storm. My relatives, who were doing research there, said that within days the desert was completely covered with tiny, colorful flowers. My sister in law said that if you walked among them, the fragence was so overpoweringly sweet it made you retch. And of couse this display wasn't intended for humans -- it was for the vast clouds of insects that emerged from the apparently sterile soil to pollinate the flowers.


    Obviously, there is a tremendous amount of life latent in the soil. There is a huge difference between a few inches of rain per decade and no rain at all.

  • The last existing colony of life in Chile's barren Atacama Desert was located and extinguished today when CMU's robotic rover 'Zoe' sprayed four special dyes on it. However, to the joy of researchers and art lovers, the formerly living mater then took on a pleasing fluorescent glow.

    NASA has ordered two for the next Mars mission.

    In related news, Vulcan industries has expressed an interest in licensing the technology to disinfect commercial kitchen floors.
  • But remember, the scientists here probably expected to find life, which could have influenced their analysis. Off Topic: I wonder if Nature's web site is down because of all the traffic from Slashdot...
  • Data: "I would be happy to, sir. I just love scanning for life forms!
    Life forms! **** You tiny little life forms! **** You precious little life forms! ***** Where are you? *********"
  • But does it run Linux?
  • Cool! Let's hack it to find intelligent life in a managers meeting.
  • In what way is it similar to Mars? It has a breathable, oxygen atmosphere, there is water vapour in that atmosphere, even if not much, the gravity is almost twice as strong. There's some vegetation and at least bacterial life there (as there is even in the driest of deserts). The temperature is conservatively 400 degrees higher in the desert than on Mars.

    Whereas none of the above applies to Mars. So they are, in fact, completely different. Who is it who "is thought" to believe it to be like Mars?

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