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By Alan Boyle
Updated: 3:02 p.m. ET Aug. 18, 2004
Robotics experts are getting a next-generation rover ready to hunt for life in the driest place on Earth. The two-month-long dry run in Chile's Atacama Desert could help set the stage for a similar search someday on Mars.
The four-wheeled, solar-powered rover, named Zoë, was created at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It's designed to cover up to 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) a day, at speeds of up to 2.2 mph (1 meter per second). That's 20 times as fast as the top speed for the twin rovers currently working on Mars.
But raw speed isn't the point of this experiment. Rather, the researchers want to see whether highly mobile robots could do a better job of looking for life in alien environments.
"We're testing a hypothesis here, that the way to search for life is actually to look in a lot of places," said David Wettergreen, a Carnegie Mellon robotics professor who heads the NASA-funded research project, known as Life in the Atacama.