NASA drills the desert to test the tools on the prototype KREX-2 rover
The KREX-2 rover recently spent a month digging through dry, rocky terrain, hunting for microbial life. Under the close supervision of 35 NASA scientists, engineers and other staff, the four-wheeled rover explored the arid soil, digging into the dirt to look for signs of life. While all systems performed well, no Martian life was found, because KREX-2 was cruising through the Atacama Desert in Chile as part of NASA’s Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS). Even without running into actual alien life, the various instruments are on their way towards inclusion in future uncrewed missions to the Red Planet.
Digging in the driest dirt
Before sending a rover to another planet, it’s obviously a good idea to test it as much as possible. It’s hard to completely simulate Mars, but the Atacama Desert is the best proxy on Earth. Located between two mountain ranges, the high-altitude desert is one of the most arid places on the planet. The overall average rainfall is between one to three millimeters a year, although some weather stations have gone four years between precipitation. There’s probably still more life there than on Mars, but that also makes it easier to confirm that the instrumentation is working.
KREX-2 is equipped with a small suite of life-hunting tools, starting with a six-foot drill. The drill can dig into the soil and help gather samples for the Wet Chemistry Laboratory and the clearly labeled Signs of Life Detector. These instruments analyze soil samples for 512 compounds that are somehow tied to biology, either directly or as a byproduct that would indicate the earlier presence of a living thing. Rounding things out is the Microfluidic Life Analyzer, which can detect tiny quantities of water that may be trapped under or inside rocks, then look for amino acids.
Signs from the soil
The ARADS mission went well, with the drill exceeding expectations. Soil analysis indicated that the Atacama Desert has been home to extremely arid conditions for at least 10 to 15 million years, which may be a handy comparison point for future Mars missions. Since Mars doesn’t seem to have the abundant water and atmosphere it likely used to, the signs of life these sensors may someday detect will likely be remnants of microbes from millions (or billions) of years ago.
Source: NASA Tests Life-Detecting Mars Rover Tech in Brutal Chilean Desert by Nancy Atkinson, Seeker