LANL tests autonomous drones in the Arctic for interplanetary missions

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Thousands of miles away, in the Arctic Circle, scientists from Los Alamos National Lab are doing research that could soon find life on Mars.

Scientists traveled to Haughton, the northernmost crater on Earth. Haughton is deep into the Arctic on Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island in the world.

“What makes this such a good Mars analog is that this entire island is frozen, because it’s in the Arctic, so it’s just like Mars. Mars is a cold place covered in impact craters so we can use Haughton as a Mars analog to study Mars on Earth,” planetary scientist Nina Lanza said.

The island is so remote that LANL had to charter a flight with the Canadian government to get there.

Researchers tested the Gamma Rotorcraft for Analog Planetary Environments drone there in July 2022. The GRAPE drone pairs aerial images with various techniques to find signs of life.

For 15 days, they tested different techniques they could apply to future missions.

“The dream goal of GRAPE is to be able to make autonomous drone platforms that can go and make measurements on other planets. And make decisions about what to do next without having humans making that decision,” Lanza said.

Geologists worked on the ground to find sites where there could be signs of life. Then, they used their drones to do the same work separately.

Their goal? Test the drones’ performance and see if they’d be good enough to work on their own.

“We also wanted to take measurements using a chemistry technique to try to understand how those sites were different. We were looking for things, like the chemistry of life, to better understand where we might find biosignatures in these samples we’ve selected from the air and from the ground. As part of the GRAPE project, we used two different drones that could image from above. So we were able to make maps of the areas where we wanted to sample,” Lanza said.

In the end, their research paid off.

“The site selected from the drone was comparable to what geologists were picking on the ground. I think this gives us confidence to could use drone-based systems to do good geology on other planets,” she said.