The Atacama Desert in Chile is known for being home to several astronomical observatories. The region's high altitude and scarce rainfall provides crystal-clear skies for impeccable observing conditions.
But this high desert also offers an unparalleled approximation of the conditions on Mars. With its harsh, dry environment and intense ultraviolet radiation, most life in this extreme desert exists as microbial colonies underground or inside rocks.
That makes the Atacama Desert a good place to practice looking for life on Mars.
NASA's Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS) team just concluded their second season in Chile, testing out their KREX-2 rover. Thirty-five researchers, scientists, engineers, and support staff spent a month testing out this prototype rover, sending it on various mission to use its drill and life-detection instruments. Using the unforgiving landscape, they were able to demonstrate the technical feasibility and scientific value of a mission that searches for evidence of life on Mars.
"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 scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center and the principal investigator of ARADS. He also led the first expedition in 2016. "Having both subsurface reach and surface mobility should greatly increase the number of biomarker and life-target sites we can sample in the Atacama."