Chile’s Atacama a perfect preview for hunt for life on Mars

European Space Agency (ESA) hopes that it can replicate research from the Atacama on Earth’s closest neighbor when it sends its latest rover into space.

Despite having once been underwater, some parts of Chile’s Atacama Desert have not seen a single drop of rain since records began. These arid, seemingly lifeless areas make the Atacama the driest hot desert in the world and the perfect setting for scientists involved in the search for life on Mars.

The latest project to come to Northern Chile is being conducted by a research team from the European Space Agency (ESA). The scientists arrived in October to test out their latest space lander — a six-wheeled rover nicknamed Bridget — ahead of their ExoMars mission planned for 2018.

“This field trial is about optimizing the use of typical instruments and equipment aboard a Mars rover and generating a set of commands for the rover to execute the following day,” explains Michel van Winnendael, overseeing the Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover, or SAFER, project for ESA.

The rover, designed with the input of astrobiologists, is built to collect samples above and below the ground and search for microbes and bacteria, life forms most likely to survive in such an extreme environment. Bridget is specially equipped with tools like a ground-penetrating radar, a panoramic camera for stereo 3D vision and a macro camera that can study ground samples with a resolution of a thousandth of a millimeter.

“Since drilling plays an important role in the ExoMars rover’s search-for-life strategy, this [new procedure] is an important step,” ExoMars scientist Jorge Vago said. “On Mars the best chances of accessing well-preserved molecular biosignatures deposited during the planets early, water-rich history lie in the subsurface at depths below one meter, where the topsoil provides shielding from cosmic radiation damage.”

The ESA is not the first to send a group of scientists to practice for a Mars mission in the Atacama. NASA from the United States used the Chilean desert as a trial for their rovers Nomad and Zoe. The second lander was on the ground in the Atacama as recently as July of this year practicing its drill technique before a mission planned for 2020.

The Atacama is a favorite of astronomers and astrobiologists alike. Its famously clear and dark skies have made it the ideal home for some of the world’s top astronomical observatories such as the European Southern Observatory’s VISTA telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the largest land-based observatory ever built.