NASA Ames Space Scientists Help Test Life Detection Drill in the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS) project has just completed its first deployment after one month of fieldwork in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert, the “driest place on Earth. More than 20 scientists from the United States, Chile, Spain, and France led by P.I. Brian Glass with Carol Stoker, Alfonso Davila, Richard Quinn, Kathryn Bywaters, Mary Beth Wilhelm, Arwen Dave, Dean Bergman, Michael Furlong, and Thomas Stucky from NASA Ames, camped together and worked in extremely dry, 100+ degree heat with high winds during the first ARADS field deployment. Their work was primarily at Yungay Station, a mining ghost town at one of the driest places in the Atacama, owned by the University of Antofagasta in Chile. During this initial deployment, scientists put several technologies through the paces under harsh field conditions: a Mars-prototype drill; a sample transfer arm; the Signs of Life Detector (SOLID) created by Spain’s Centro de Astrobiologia (CAB); and a prototype version of the Wet Chemistry Laboratory (WCL), which flew on the Phoenix Mars mission in 2007. Additionally, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and NASA Ames collected samples for laboratory investigations of the extreme microorganisms living inside salt habitats in the Atacama. These salt habitats could be the last refuge for life in this extremely dry region that is otherwise devoid of plants, animals, and most types of microorganisms. Over the next four years, the ARADS project will return to the Atacama to demonstrate the feasibility of integrated roving, drilling and life-detection, with the goal of demonstrating the technical feasibility and scientific value of a mission that searches for evidence of life on Mars.