In an effort to learn more about Mars, NASA scientists explore Atacama Desert in Chile, known as the "driest place on Earth."

Atacama offers a Mars-like environment that could offer researchers opportunities for conducting field tests of new life-detecting instruments that may be brought into future missions to the Red Planet.

Because of its harsh environment characterized by intense ultraviolet radiation and very little water, life in Atacama exists as microbial colonies that thrive inside rocks or undergrounds.

While the region is considerably warmer compared with Mars, its soil chemistry and extreme dryness are remarkably similar to that of the Red Planet, which makes the region an excellent Mars-like laboratory where researchers can study the limits of their life-detection and test drilling technologies.

With Mars having cold and dry condition, there is high possibility that life in the planet may be found below its surface where the unwanted effects of radiation are reduced. Evidence for alien life in the extraterrestrial world may come in the form of organic molecules called biomarkers.

"Putting life-detection instruments in a difficult, Mars-analog environment will help us figure out the best ways of looking for past or current life on Mars, if it existed," said NASA's Brian Glass. "Having both subsurface reach and surface mobility should greatly increase the number of biomarker and life-target sites we can sample in the Atacama."

Brian Glass and colleagues spent a month running experiments in the arid region testing a Mars-prototype drill, Signs of Life Detector (SOLID), which was developed by the Centro de Astrobiologia (CAB) of Spain, and a prototype of Wet Chemistry Laboratory (WCL), which accompanied the Phoenix lander to Mars in 2007.

Researchers also collected samples of extreme microorganisms that live in the Atacama's salt habitats for laboratory investigations. These habitats could serve as host for life in the extremely dry region known to be devoid of animals, plants and most types of microorganisms.

NASA Ames researcher Mary Beth Wilhelm said that they are excited about the distinctive and resilient microorganisms and are optimistic that their studies will help improve the life-detection technology and strategies that will be adopted for the Red Planet.

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