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Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS) Project Wraps Up Successful Remote Operations
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Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS) Project Wraps Up Successful Remote Operations

The ARADS rover, carrying a 1m drill, sample-transfer robot arm, and three life-detection instruments (the Signs Of LIfe Detector — SOLID, immunoassay from Spain; the MIcrofluidic Life Analyzer — MILA, instrument from JPL; and the Wet Chemistry Lab from Ames) conducted a remotely-operated, simulated, roving life-detection mission in Chile's Atacama Desert, a high-fidelity Mars analog site. A Mission Operations team at Ames sent twice-daily Deep Space Network (DSN) -like command sequences and received periodic updates and data relays from the rover in the field in Chile. Over six days, the science team conducted a 500m traverse and explored three sites across a dry lakebed. Biomarkers were detected and recognized by science team members back at Ames. Meanwhile, ARADS remote ops team members Alfonso Davila and Padraig Michael Furlong were interviewed by the Ames Public Affairs Office (PAO) in a broadcast of NASA Ames’ "Silicon Valley Live" during the final ARADS remote operations demonstration at the end of September. ARADS team members and equipment returned this past week from Chile having met or exceeded all goals and project targets.

BACKGROUND: ARADS has been designing tools and techniques for future planetary exploration and testing them in one of the best Mars analogs on Earth: Chile’s Atacama Desert. Each year from 2016-19, the ARADS team, led by Brian Glass of the Intelligent System’s Division’s Deployable Autonomy Technologies group, is spending one month working in the heart of the Atacama field testing these tools and techniques. At the center of the ARADS project is an Ames-designed and -developed rover prototype that is about the same size as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers already on Mars. Called K-REX2, this rover is equipped with a drill capable of reaching two meters (6.5 feet) down through salt, rock layers, and parched soil to retrieve a sample for analysis. When given a target destination, the rover can navigate autonomously over a rugged, Mars-like surface, then drill and transfer samples to the onboard scientific instruments automatically.

The mobility (provided by the rover) plus access below the surface (offered by the drill) means ARADS can test different strategies for searching for potential evidence of life in three dimensions. Testing the operations of the rover and drilling system in a Mars-like environment helps researchers prepare for future missions to Mars, including choosing the best locations to explore and engineering systems for set-up and stabilization of the drill — all on a planet with less than half the gravity of Earth. Ultimately, the ARADS project aims to show that roving, drilling, and life-detection can take place in concert, with the goal of demonstrating the technical feasibility and scientific value of a mission that searches for evidence of life on Mars.

NASA PROGRAM FUNDING: This simulated rover life-detection mission is part of the Science Mission Directorate’s (SMD) Planetary Science and Technology from Analogue Research (PSTAR) program (Mary Voytek, Program Manager). Collaborating institutions include NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Honeybee Robotics, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Antofagasta in Chile, and the Centro de Astrobiologia in Spain.

TEAM: Deployable Autonomy Technologies (DAT) group, and a number of members from the Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG) and the Ames Science Division (Code S).

POINT OF CONTACT: Brian Glass, brian.glass@nasa.gov

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