NASA Tests Life-Detection Technology And Strategies For Mars At Atacama Desert

Posted: Feb 29 2016, 2:23pm CST | by , in News | Latest Science News


NASA scientists drilling at Atacama desert
Photo credit: NASA

The Atacama desert in Chile is reputed for being the driest place on Earth, and a place NASA finds very suitable for carrying out a number of experiments, the recent being a drilling activity to test for subsurface microbial activity as a way of testing the possibility of life on Mars.

NASA scientists hypothesize that if microbial life could exist inside rocks and underground in the extremely arid Atacama desert where the conditions are very harsh with intense ultraviolet radiation, then life may exist in the same form on Mars.

Since humans would not be able to collect soil samples from below the surface of Mars until they set foot there, scientists think they can carry out studies in a place with conditions similar to and almost like that on Mars, hence the choice of Atacama desert.

After a month of fieldwork at the “driest place on Earth,” the scientists completed the first phase of the Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS). It is true that Atacama is warmer than Mars, but it is more or less like a laboratory where researchers can carry out studies in a Mars-like environment using life-detection technologies that will hereafter be deployed on the red planet.

“Putting life-detection instruments in a difficult, Mars-analog environment will help us figure out the best ways of looking for past or current life on Mars, if it existed,” said Dr. Brian Glass, a NASA Ames space scientist and the principal investigator of the ARADS project.  “Having both subsurface reach and surface mobility should greatly increase the number of biomarker and life-target sites we can sample in the Atacama.”

An international team of over 20 scientists from the US, Chile, Spain, and France converged at Atacama to work under 100+ degree heat and high winds. The researchers worked largely at Yungay Station in Atacama, owned by the University of Antofagasta in Chile; but they are also thinking of working at Salar Grande and Maria Elena, two extremely dry regions.

Some of the technologies that the NASA team used at the Atacama region were a Mars-prototype drill, a sample transfer arm, the Signs of Life Detector (SOLID) made by Spain’s Centro de Astrobiologia (CAB), a prototype version of the Wet Chemistry Laboratory (WCL) which flew on the Phoenix Mars mission in 2007.

The researchers successfully used the ARADS drill and sample transfer robot arm to obtain and send sample material to the SOLID and WCL instruments. Over the next four years, the ARADS project will return to the Atacama to demonstrate the feasibility of integrated roving, drilling and life-detection, with the goal of demonstrating the technical feasibility and scientific value of a mission that searches for evidence of life on Mars.

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/52" rel="author">Charles I. Omedo</a>
Charles is covering the latest discoveries in science and health as well as new developments in technology. He is the Chief Editor or Intel-News.




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