'Cyborg Astrobiologist' Helps Rovers Seek Aliens
42 years after the first moon rover transported the Apollo 15 astronauts over the lunar terrain, here are a selection of NASA photos taken by Apollo 15 commander David Scott and Lunar Module pilot James Irwin during their wheeled 1971 lunar adventure while Alfred Worden, command module pilot, remained in orbit about the moon.
Shown here, after three highly successful EVAs, Scott walks away from the first ever Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), a location where it remains to this day.
(All photos are sourced from NASA's excellent Human Spaceflight Gallery: http://spaceflight1.nasa.gov/gallery/index.html)
An artist's concept of the Apollo 15 Hadley-Apennine landing area showing the two moon-exploring crewmen, Scott and Irwin, driving on the lunar rover.
The lunar rover was attached to the lunar module and lowered to the surface and unfolded by the Apollo surface crew. When packed, the rover took up a volume of only four cubic feet.
Scott and Irwin drive the Lunar Roving Vehicle trainer called "Grover" during a simulation of lunar surface extravehicular activity in Taos, New Mexico.
Scott (right) and Irwin test out the lunar rover before the Apollo 15 mission to the moon at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Fla., in May 1971.
Gover is driven up to the edge of a man-made crater in Cinder Lake crater field in Arizona to simulate the lunar landscape.
On July 31, 1971, the first lunar rover is unpacked during the first surface extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Hadley-Apennine landing site on the moon. The lunar module, "Falcon," is shown here with the rover and lunar module pilot James Irwin.
The US flag is unfolded and planted toward the end of the Apollo 15 mission; Irwin salutes.
The rover was an invaluable workhorse during the Apollo 15 mission, boosting the scope of how much of the lunar landscape around the Hadley-Apennine landing site the astronauts could explore.
Irwin stops the lunar rover from sliding downhill during the second Apollo 15 lunar EVA. Both of the rover's rear wheels appear to be off the ground. Scott was working on a fresh crater at the Apennine Front (Hadley Delta Mountain) when the vehicle started to slide down the 20 degree slope. Fortunately, the rover was stopped and the astronauts were able to continue their work.
Sending an exploratory rover to another planet is riddled with challenges, among them, what to investigate and what to ignore. Take the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars for example. Ground control scientists decide where the rovers should go and what they should investigate but commands sent via radio signals from Earth can take up to 20 minutes to reach Mars, depending on where the rover is relative to Earth.
Patrick McGuire from the Freie Universität, Berlin, has a way to speed up extra-planetary exploration. His Cyborg Astrobiologist program teaches robots what’s worth looking and what to leave behind. Future rovers and probes could use it to check out otherwise ordinary-looking rocks for signs of life.
The program will be based on a huge database of images of geological features on Earth, the reasoning behind it being that rocks and such out there are similar to those down here. A rover would snap images of its surroundings and then compare those images to the ones in the database. If the computer program found something unusual or something that looked like a living organism on Earth — such as lichen — the rover would investigate more closely.
McGuire and his colleagues have tested the system in landscapes similar to Martian ones, such as around coalbeds and gypsum cliffs as well on sandstone, limestone and mudstone.
Some of those rocks were partly covered with lichen. Lichens are particularly important when seeking out alien life; it’s one of the few living things that could conceivably survive in a Martian environment. Anything that lives on marks is likely to look and act like lichens or algae mats.
Thus far, matching images with similar features in images from the database seems to have worked pretty well. McGuire said in a press release that the computer program agreed with human geologists that it was looking at a lichen nine out of ten times.
McGuire presented his results at the European Planetary Science Congress in London.
Credit: P.C. McGuire, L. Wendt, B. Foing, C. Gross /Freie Universität Berlin, /CSIC-INTA/U. Malta/ESTEC/U. Chicago