Nomad has discovered a very interesting indigenous rock here in the Atacama; what makes this rock interesting is the possibility that it may contain fossilized life! If this possibility is confirmed, this could be the first time that remote scientists have discovered fossilized life on Earth's surface using robotic exploration!
This rock was *not* planted by the local team; it was truly discovered by scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field California, who were looking through the eyes of the robot Nomad here in Chile's Atacama Desert. The remote scientists had observed a white outcropping in some aerial photography of the region (black and white images with 1 square meter per pixel), and set out to investigate it. When Nomad arrived, they took pictures of the pinnacle, and then looked at a unique rock sticking up out of the base of the hill. It had many dark markings on it, and the remote scientists identified these markings as potential fossils.
Naturally, we await confirmation of this discovery. The word from the science field team here is that the rover made the discovery of some structures that look organic. If the structures are organic, it could be a type of silicate algae mat. So Nomad may possibly have discovered a fossil, but until further analysis is done in a laboratory, this cannot be stated for certain.
The discovery of this rock was made at the fourth of ten science sites visited by Nomad today, which were spaced over a total of about 1.3 kilometers (or about 4/5ths of a mile). Throughout the day, the remote scientists found new and exciting objects to image. However, the plan for the day was to simulate a Lunar-style exploration mission, one which would cover a large distance. That is, a large distance compared with the earlier Mars simulations which (I'm now told) covered only 150 meters on Monday, and 250 meters on Tuesday. So instead of staying focused on a small number of sites in one area, they made sure to cover a lot of ground.
In fact, according to the local team, the remote scientists just missed discovering even more interesting rocks (and fossils) at sites four and seven. And due to some mechanical problems with the cameras today, image acquisition took much longer than usual because some routine operations had to be performed by the field team ("up 15 degrees; left 20 degrees" and the like). Their instructions were followed so explicitly and so well, that the remote team missed locating a fossil at site seven by only a few inches. But even so, today's remote science has been quite successful.
Fortunately, the camera system used by the scientists today is an improved version of that used by NASA Ames in earlier remote geology experiments on their Marsokhod robot. Not only does the current set of science cameras provide human-eye-like resolution in full color stereo images, they also acquire images in one-third the time taken by the cameras used in the Arizona Marsokhod study. This makes it possible to cover even more ground, and get more images, than in those earlier experiements.
All of us on the Nomad project are keenly interested in the outcome of this further study. For those of us from Carnegie Mellon University who designed and built Nomad, discovery of fossilized life would be a tremendous validation of the appropriateness of our design for performing remote science. As the latest in a series of robotic planetary explorer prototypes, Nomad provides unprecedented imaging and locomotive capabilities. And for the NASA Ames team, it would be the culmination of several years of evolutionary work in organizing the robotic and stateside operations necessary for the performance of remote geology. This Atacama operation comes on the heels of several earlier remote geology studies performed in Arizona, Hawaii, and more.
This information comes from several sources. Prof. Guillermo Chong Diaz and his associates from the Universidad Cato'lica del Norte in Antofagasta, Chile are here on site to provide ground truth information about the observations taken by Nomad. Dr. David Wettergreen of the NASA Ames Research Center briefed me on the strategy taken by the scientists at Ames in exploring this region. And some of the background information comes from yours truly, Dr. Mark Maimone of Carnegie Mellon University.