The Atacama desert in Chile may appear rather ordinary to the average guy in the street but, for scientists, it may hold the key to finding out about life on Mars.
At 150 million years old, It’s the oldest desert in the world and the driest aside from the polar regions; there is only 1 mm of precipitation per year. The Atacama stretches 1,600 km tucked between two major South American mountain ranges – the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range.
The stony landscape hugs the coastal cliff of northern Chile and is composed of salt lakes, active volcanoes, rust-coloured sand and streams of thick felsic lava that flow towards the Andes.
Tourism is rife in this area too, mostly for its unique elements and otherworldly appearance, it’s also an astronomer’s dreamscape, and three observatories have settled happily in its arid clutches for prime stargazing.
What makes the desert a true showstopper is how closely it resembles another, though not one of this world. The Atacama has often been compared to Mars; they are so similar that the BBC series Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets was shot there.
Because of this affinity, NASA has been utilising the Atacama for awhile, using it to test the Mars rovers for future missions.
Astrobiologists have been delving into its mysteries as well because bacteria and microorganisms found in the Atacama aren’t seen anywhere else on earth. Specifically in a region of the desert called Maria Elena South, which is full of thriving bacteria despite the uninhabitable aspects of the terrain.
“This also implies that if you want to test the next generation of robots, instruments and other detection techniques and technologies in a Mars-like environment, this is one of the best you can find as it possesses many of the key characteristics that you will find on the Red Planet,” said Armando Azua-Bustos, lead author of the paper detailing this particular find.
This means that we are closer to knowing how we’d survive and adapt to life on Mars. This is promising as the world’s population is steadily increasing and soon we’ll need to spread out. Good to know its possible outside our atmosphere.