"Opportunity in Endurance Crater" by NASA / Public Domain

How rovers are searching for alien life in the desert

Feb 28, 2019

By Ashley Strickland

Before they go to Mars, rovers like NASA’s Mars 2020 and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars missions need to be equipped to study the Red Planet and collect samples. So where’s the best Mars on Earth? These researchers think the closest analog is Chile’s Atacama Desert.

The Martian surface is harsh, a dry, cold, irradiated environment. But ancient Mars may have been habitable for microbial life because it supported water. The rovers going to Mars in the coming years will be searching for biosignatures in Martian soil, drilling and sampling below the surface to find evidence of this potential ancient life.

A NASA-funded study deployed a robotic rover in the Atacama Desert in 2013 for a trial mission to find signs of life in another inhospitable environment. The Atacama Desert is the driest desert region on Earth, with incredibly little moisture or precipitation. Animals and plants are hard to come by, but bacteria could be below the surface.

The study results were published Thursday in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

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