The Search For Life On Mars Begins On Earth, With A Smartphone Camera
September 11, 2013

The Search For Life On Mars Begins On Earth, With A Mobile Phone Camera

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Researchers have created a part-human, part-machine “cyborg astrobiology system” that uses a basic mobile phone camera to search for proof of past or present life in planetary analogue sites on Earth.

Developed by Patrick McGuire from the Freie Universität in Berlin, Germany, and colleagues, the system involves having a human astrobiologist obtain initial images of his or her surroundings using a mobile phone camera. These images are then sent via Bluetooth to a laptop computer, which processes the images to detect unique colors and textures, and then communicates back to the astrobiologist the degree of similarity to previous images stored in the database.

The researchers, which include McGuire and other scientists from from the Freie Universität, West Virginia University, the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid and the University of Malta, worked for over a decade to provide more scientific autonomy to robotic rovers in selecting the most promising sites for geological and astrobiological investigation.

"Over the years, our system has shrunk down from a camera on a tripod and wearable computer, to a small laptop and a phone-cam," said McGuire. "We are now working to speed up the image compression analysis and put the whole system onto a Smartphone – and eventually onto a Mars rover!"

The robotic rovers currently exploring Mars rely heavily on guidance from scientists back on Earth to detect areas that are most interesting for further analysis. But the time delay in transmitting and receiving the commands can take between 4 and 24 minutes depending on the relative positions of Earth and Mars on their orbital paths.

Exploration would be significantly accelerated if the rovers could autonomously identify unusual colors and textures created by geochemical or biological processes that may indicate past or present life.

Tests of the cyborg astrobiology system have been conducted at field sites with similarities to landscapes that are found on Mars, such as gypsum cliffs, red-bed sandstone, limestone, mudstone and coalbeds. Some rocks have been partly covered with lichen, a life-form that can possibly spread to/from other planets.

The researchers said that matching images with similar features in images from the database has been highly successful.

"In our most recent tests at a former coal mine in West Virginia, the similarity-matching by the computer agreed with the judgement of our human geologists 91 percent of the time. The novelty detection also worked well, although there were some issues in differentiating between features that are similar in color but different in texture, like yellow lichen and sulphur-stained coalbeds. However, for a first test of the technique, it looks very promising," said McGuire.

The results of the cyborg astrobiologist’s field-work in West Virginia are currently under review for publication by the International Journal of Astrobiology.