NASA funds Nomad expedition to Antarctica

A computerized four-wheeled robot named Nomad that has been deployed in Antarctica to search for meteorites could serve as a prototype for future planetary exploration.

Nomad, which was developed and deployed by student researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, was funded by grants from NASA's Cross Enterprise Technology Development Program. The robot has just begun to explore Elephant Moraine, a remote area in eastern Antarctica. The project is being conducted in collaboration with the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Search for Meteorites program, which has collected more than 10,000 meteorites during annual expeditions to Antarctica.

The goal is not only to discover information that is useful to scientists on Earth studying the origins of life, but also to test prototype space exploration technologies in an environment similar to that on other planets, said Dimitrios Apostolopoulos, systems scientist at the institute.

The university program started three years ago and receives about $1 million from NASA each year. This year's expedition is slated to be the last, but Carnegie Mellon is preparing a proposal for NASA and NSF to expand the robots' capabilities to include autonomously searching for fossils and other evidence of life, Apostolopoulos said.

There are four computers on Nomad, including two PCs running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT that control its panoramic camera, perform landmark-based navigation and run its autonomous classification software. A third computer running Red Hat Inc.'s Linux operating system coordinates robot navigation and obstacle avoidance with stereo cameras and a laser rangefinder. Finally, a VME processor cage with a Motorola Inc. 68060 processor controls Nomad's real-time processing, such as translation of driving commands into servo motor movements, and the monitoring of all systems on Nomad.

Nomad also uses the Global Positioning System to determine its location and communicates with the control station using a wireless Ethernet connection. Data is relayed back to the university in Pittsburgh via an Inmarsat satellite link.

"Because robots are the preferred way to do planetary exploration until humans are sent to other planets 20 or 30 years from now, it is important to first test the technologies on Earth," Apostolopoulos said. The next generation of space robots will conduct similar searches and research on other planets. Antarctica is an ideal setting for the tests because its climate preserves samples and its terrain presents challenges similar to that on Mars, he said.

More information about the current expedition can be found at www.ri.cmu.edu/~meteorobot2000.

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