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NASA's Life-Hunting Tools For Mars Mission Tested In Atacama Desert

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NASA scientists and engineers went to one of the driest places on Earth, Chile's Atacama desert, to test tools designed to drill for samples and find signs of life on Mars.

Hunting For Signs Of Past And Present Life On Planet Mars

Last month, members of NASA's Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies, or ARADS, worked in 90-plus degree heat to test technologies that may be used in robotic missions prior to the arrival of human explorers on the Red Planet in a bid to demonstrate the scientific value and technical feasibility of a mission that would search for signs of life on Mars.

Mars 2020

Results of the test can help NASA scientists and engineers determine if the next probe the U.S. space agency will send to Mars can drill for samples and find signs of existing and past life on the extraterrestrial world. The Mars 2020 mission, which could reach Mars by February 2021, aims to do these.

"This mission marks a significant milestone in NASA's Journey to Mars — to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars, and to advance our goal of sending humans to the Red Planet," said Geoffrey Yoder, from NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

Life Underground

If life ever existed or still exists on the Red Planet, exposure to extensive radiation and the aridness of its surface would possibly drive life underground, which makes Atacama a good place for scientists to practice hunting for life on the planet.

Just like Mars, the desert has extremely dry conditions and is persistently exposed to UV radiation from the sun which means that the little life that exists there comes in the form of microbes that live inside rocks or underground.

Life-Detection Instruments For The Red Planet

Team members used a practice rover called KREX-2, which carried a drill and a robotic sample transfer arm. Samples acquired by the rover's drill are fed into three life-detection instruments that are positioned nearby.

The life-hunting tools include the Wet Chemistry Laboratory and the Signs of Life Detector, which uses biochemical methods that are distantly comparable to those employed by home medical tests. Diabetes patients monitor their blood sugar using a device that detects glucose. The instrument, on the other hand, is designed to detect 512 different biological compounds.

The two tools have already been tested by members of the ARADS team in February last year but these were included again in the tests this year to evaluate some new modifications. Scientists also conducted the first field test of the Microfluidic Life Analyzer, which processes small volumes of liquid sample to isolate amino acids which are known as building blocks of life.

The team successfully drilled to depths of up to 2 meters and acquired samples that the three life-hunting instruments searched for signs of life.

"The drill, rover and robot arm combination behaved beautifully in the field," said ARADS Principal Investigator Brian Glass. "It was a steady platform that enabled us to go deeper than we expected."

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