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Mars dream: Researchers test life detection in Atacama

Mars Atacama

As a child it’s always hard to distinguish real from unreal. It comes to many growing children as a shocker that the people inside the TV set are unreal and ghosts don’t exist.

This constant quest to know the unknown has led humans to carry out some biggest discoveries in the history of mankind. From inventing fire to looking out for a galaxy outside our own, these discoveries were made possible only because of the human desire to discover more.

A NASA team has been working under very harsh conditions in the arid Atacama Desert in Chile, to find if life exists there. The scientists’ claim that if life could exists here in any form, then it may exist in the red planet in the same form.

An old mining town of Yanguy in Atacama, where these studies were carried out, is much warmer than the planet Mars. However, the atmospheric condition here is equally harsh with very little water and intense ultra-violet radiation. The soil chemistry of the area is same as the red planet providing a mars-like laboratory for the researchers.

Since, it is far too early to deploy a team in Mars so; similar experiments are being carried out in Atacama, which is known to be the driest place on earth.

An international team of over 20 scientists from the US, Chile, Spain, and France came under the umbrella of Atacama Rover Astro-biology Drilling Studies to find existence of life in Atacama, where temperature is usually around 100+ degree Centigrade. The team assembled a robotic drill that goes deep into the soil to find life in microbial form underground or inside rocks, also known as bio markers.

Besides assembling equipment needed to set off for the Mars mission, the researchers are also studying new ways to search for microorganisms that can thrive inside rocks and in extremely dry climates.

Putting life-detection instruments in a difficult, Mars-analogue environment will help us figure out the best ways of looking for past or current life on Mars, if it existed, said Brian Glass, a Nasa Ames space scientist and the principal investigator of the Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (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, Glass added.

The team, deployed a month ago, just completed the first phase of the experiment. They largely worked in Yungay Station, which is favorable for astro-biological researches. They also identified two other desert locations – Salar Grande and Maria Elena for future ARADS tests.

Over the next four years, the ARADS team will extensively work in Atacama to demonstrate the feasibility of integrated roving, drilling and life-detection.

About the author

Sanchari Ghosh

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