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'Nomad' combs no-man's-land for meteors

Mission impossible: Nomad the robot, not your average four-wheeler, is scouring Antarctica for meteors.  

January 24, 2000
Web posted at: 10:24 a.m. EST (1524 GMT)

There are sports-utility vehicles, off-road vehicles and all-terrain vehicles. And then there is Nomad the robot.

A different breed of four-wheeler, Nomad is on a mission from Carnegie Mellon to find meteorites in Antarctica - without a human to hold his hand. If he succeeds, he will championed by scientists from NASA to the National Science Foundation as an inspiration - and a resource - for future exploration of other planets.

"Nomad will demonstrate for the first time the ability of a science robot to autonomously search for and distinguish meteorites from terrestrial rocks," said Dimitrios Apostolopoulos, Nomad project manager at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Past robots, such as those sent to Mars or to the depths of the oceans, have only collected data for humans to interpret. Scientists hope that robots like Nomad, who can think for themselves, will be able to survey inhospitable or unknown environments as a human explorer might.

The site of the meteorite search is Elephant Moraine, a remote area in eastern Antarctica that resembles an elephant trunk. The region has yielded more than 2,000 meteorites in seven previous visits.

Nomad, who is about the size of Volkswagen Beetle, drives back and forth through the moraine as if he were mowing a lawn. He scours the landscape with a high-resolution camera, looking for rocks.

"Every time [the robot] captures a rock, it takes a picture of it, classifies it and tries to estimate the probability of it being a meteorite given its size and shape," said Apostolopoulos.

When Nomad spots a good candidate, he moves in for a closer inspection with instruments attached to a moveable arm. His tool kit includes a spectrometer, which shines light on the rock and analyzes the spectrum. Meteorites reflect light in a unique way, said Apostolopoulos.

If Nomad determines the object under scrutiny is indeed a meteorite, the robot will radio its exact coordinates to researchers, who will later retrieve the object to confirm Nomad's findings.

"Nomad saves this data in its database and thinks 'what does this new information mean' and incorporates it into its past knowledge," said Apostolopoulos. "Its learns and improves its experience. The more samples it analyzes the better it gets."

The Nomad research program and expedition in Antarctica are funded by grants from NASA. The project is a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University and the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Search for Meteorites program.

As the expedition unfolds, the public can follow the action on the Internet at the Big Signal Project.

Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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Big Signal Project
Robotic Antarctic Meteorite Search
Dimitrious Apostolopoulos
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