Scientists studying the Atacama Desert in Chile, which most resembles conditions on Mars, are confident their findings will aid future Mars missions. A study published this week in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology has found an abundant number of microbial life in the desert’s soil. A NASA-style rover deployed in the Atacama for the purpose of the study recovered subsurface soil samples for analysis. The robot drilled at a depth of 31 inches (800mm), which the study called a “previously unexplored” depth.
The soil samples proved microbes can survive in some of the most inhospitable conditions, similar to those on the Red Planet.
Stephen Pointing, from Yale-NUS College in Singapore, said: “We have shown that a robotic rover can recover subsurface soil in the most Mars-like desert on Earth.
“This is important because most scientists agree that any life on Mars would occur below the surface to escape the harsh surface conditions where high radiation, low temperature and lack of water make life unlikely.”
Professor Pointing’s study found microbes can thrive in soil where salt levels are extremely high.
The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth, going through entire decades without rainfall.
In addition, Professor Pointing said the desert’s salty soil is blasted by high amounts of ultraviolet radiation.
Combined together, the scientist argued the dire conditions are “the closest match to Mars” scientists can hope to find on Earth.
He said: “We found microbes adapted to high salt levels, similar to what may be expected in the Martian subsurface.
“These microbes are very different from those previously known to occur on the surface of deserts.”
The news comes after scientists have said the discovery of ancient riverbeds on Mars could be evidence of past life.
Study co-authors Nathalie Cabrol and Kim Warren-Rhodes of The SETI Institute said the study confirms microbial life in Earth most extreme habitats is “patchy”.
This patchiness suggests the presence of past and existing life may exist on other planets within the solar system and outside of it.
The researchers said: “While this will make detection more challenging, our findings provide possible signposts to guide the exploration for life on Mars, demonstrating that it is possible to detect life with smart robotic search and sampling strategies.”
The surface of Mars is understood to be a dry, cold and irradiated place where no life can survive without protection.
But deep below the red soils of Mars is an uncharted world where many scientists believe liquid water is hidden.
NASA will search for potential signs of life on Mars as early as 2020, with the Mars 2020 and ExoMars rover missions.
The microbial study reads: “Data accumulated over the past few decades by orbital and landed missions have demonstrated that early in its history the planet may have been habitable for microbial life with abundant sources of energy, carbon, nutrients, and shelter.
“Mars supported both surface and subsurface water and may still do in some circumstances, as well as organic molecules required for life.
“As a result, Mars 2020 and ExoMars missions will be searching for biosignatures, and the investigation of terrestrial analogues can provide critical insights for the development and testing of exploration strategies.”
The incredible study was completed with funding from NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) Program Grant.