Scientists at Yale-NUS College, Singapore, and colleagues have claimed that their latest study in the Chilean desert could help space agencies to find clues to Martian life.
Scientists deployed a robotic rover in the most Mars-like environment on Earth, the Atacama Desert in Chile. The rover was able to successfully recover subsurface soil samples during a trial mission to find signs of life. The samples contained unusual and highly specialized microbes that were distributed in patches, which researchers linked to the limited water availability, scarce nutrients and chemistry of the soil. Findings are published in Frontiers in Microbiology.
In 2020 both NASA and the European Space Agency will embark on missions to deploy rovers on the surface of Mars. They will search for evidence of past or present life and for the first time, drill below the surface where refuges for simple microbial life may still exist. To help ensure that these space missions succeed, technology is rigorously tested on Earth first.
Life is patchy in extreme environments – so Mars rovers will need to dig deep
An autonomous rover-mounted robotic drill and sampling device, funded by NASA designed by Carnegie-Mellon’s Robotics Institute, was deployed in the Atacama Desert to test if it could successfully recover sediment samples down to a depth of 80cm. Pointing and his colleagues compared samples recovered by the rover to soil samples carefully taken by hand. Using DNA sequencing, they found that bacterial life in the sediments recovered by both methods were similar, indicating a successful deployment, but it also revealed that microbial life was very patchy and related to the limited water availability, scarce nutrients and geochemistry of the soil.
Pointing highlights that future research includes drilling deeper to understand just how far down recoverable microbes occur.