Inferno's Dante

It's not your average industrial fender-welder. Indeed, Dante II is making robots glamorous again. In late July and early August, the 10-foot-tall, spiderlike explorer trekked to the bottom of a volcanic crater on snow-covered Mt. Spurr in Alaska as part of a NASA scientific mission. The robot was nearly crushed several times by car-size boulders. As Dante began climbing out of the crater on Aug. 3, scientists lost contact with it. At press time, it was not clear whether the doughty Dante would live to explore new infernos.

In any case, Dante II fared better than Dante I, which failed in its attempt last year to plumb another volcano after a critical cable broke. Although Dante II's search for interesting volcanic fumes produced nothing, its operators were happy with the robot's ability to maneuver and to collect data.

Researchers believe Dante II, built by Carnegie Mellon University, could eventually save lives by venturing into such dangerous places as damaged nuclear power plants. NASA, which provided most of the $1.8 million devoted to the Dante II project, hopes to use robots someday to explore other planets.

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