Washington: The Atacama Desert - one of the harshest landscapes the planet has to offer - has been considered as a location for the filming of a movie about Mars.
Due to the accidents of its geography, Atacama is the driest place on Earth.
Some scientists believe there was no rain to speak of in part of the Atacama between 1570 and 1971.
With little moisture in the air its salt lakes, sand dunes and lava flows broil or freeze and are blasted by ultraviolet radiation.
The conditions make the Atacama a splendid place to test instruments for future Mars missions.
"If you`re practicing to find life on Mars, you don`t want to go to a lush environment," Alian Wang, PhD, research professor in the Earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and a participant in NASA`s ASTEP program to advance the technology and techniques used in planetary exploration, said.
This month, under the auspices of ASTEP, a Carnegie-Mellon University rover named Zoe set out into the Atacama.
It is scheduled to spend the next four weeks traveling between waypoints with interesting geology and analyzing soil samples, both ones from the surface and ones dredged up from deep underground.
Subsurface samples pulled up by a meter-long drill and dumped into sample cups carried by a carousel are to be examined by a laser Raman spectrometer called the Mars Microbeam Raman Spectrometer, or MMRS.