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Robot will join Antarctic meteorite search

Researchers from two adventuresome programs in planetary science will meet on an Antarctic ice field in January to
test the capabilities of a Volkswagen-sized robot to find and track locations of meteorites.

Meteorite hunters from Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET), a National Science Foundation polar program,
will join robotic scientists from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotic Institute. Ralph Harvey, a planetary geologist
at Case Western Reserve University, directs ANSMET’s exploration operations in Antarctica.

Nomad, a four-wheeled robot, was developed with support from NASA’s Cross Enterprise Technology Development

The principal investigator is William (Red) Whittaker, Carnegie Mellon University’s Fredkin Research Professor of
Robotics. Dimitrios
Apostolopoulos, a systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon, is the project manager.

The Robotic Institute developed Nomad for NASA to undertake planetary science research on Earth as an analog to
exploring Mars or the Moon.

ANSMET, which has collected more than 10,000 meteorites over the past 23 years and makes specimens available to
researchers around the world, will meet Nomad and its operators on the Elephant Moraine, a meteorite collection site
on the east Antarctic plateau.

The robot will be transported by helicopter to the site approximately 200 miles northwest of the United States’
McMurdo Station on the Antarctic coast. It is a site where Nomad, using Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking to
mark a meteorite’s location, can pick up the satellite signals on the horizon above the equator.

The joint exploration will take place after ANSMET completes this year’s search. Harvey left Cleveland November 17
for target searches at Foggy Bottom near the Beardmore Glacier, Goodwin Nanataks, and MacAlpine Hills
approximately 600 miles south of Elephant Moraine. ANSMET and the Nomad teams will link up at McMurdo Station in
mid-January for the joint expedition.

ANSMET surveyed Elephant Moraine 15 years ago, but used older search methods that did not recover all meteorites
from the site. During a short visit to the site in 1996, Harvey says they found six meteorites in 30 minutes,
suggesting that this will be an ideal area for Nomad’s first autonomous foray.

“Nomad will fill the stereotypical role of the robot cleaning up after the humans,” explains Harvey. “Robots don’t lose
their concentration and are happy to do jobs that are repetitive and difficult, allowing humans to do something else
that might be more exciting and profitable. This is a great opportunity for Nomad and ANSMET.”

This field has yielded some past treasures, including more than 2,000 specimens on seven previous visits. One
important specimen found is EET97001, the first meteorite determined to be of unambiguous Martian origin.

According to Harvey, the site gets its name for its resemblance to the features of a small elephant with an enormous
tapering trunk. The Nomad and ANSMET researchers will search for meteorites in the area at the end of the trunk.

“If Nomad finds meteorites that we might not recover otherwise, because other sites have a higher priority, then this
is a great boon. Nomad will be doing real work on behalf of ANSMET and the planetary materials community, rather
than simply demonstrating some technology,” says Harvey.

In preparation for this year’s trip, Nomad made trips to Patriot Hills’ blue ice field in Antarctica in 1997 and 1998
to learn to maneuver in Antarctica’s fanciful weather and to distinguish Earth rocks from extraterrestrial ones.

The Elephant Moraine will give Nomad varied experiences, from fields with few objects on the thousand-foot-thick
ice sheet, to places where a 100,000 rocks have been pushed together by an encroaching glacier.

Nomad can identify rocks with magnet sensors as well as optical sensors. It has been programmed to search for
meteorites by size, texture, and color, and to learn as it goes.

“We’re not at the point where John Henry takes on the steam engine. This is not about replacing humans with robots.
Instead, it is a neat exercise where robotic technologies and autonomous robotic behavior act in concert with human
skills and behavior,” says Harvey.