NASA in Australia for Mars research

July 15, 2011 at 12:21 PM

KIMBERLEY, Australia, July 15 (UPI) -- NASA says it is using a remote region of Australia's outback as a training ground for planetary scientists preparing to send a new rover to Mars.

The Pilbara region in northwest Australia was chosen as one of Earth's closest matches to the landscape researchers expect the rover to encounter on Mars, the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported Friday.

The NASA expedition has been studying a landscape filled with fossil fragments scientists believe contain evidence of primitive microbial life forms that existed 3.5 billion years ago.

The research would help scientists searching for life on Mars "if it ever existed," said expedition member Guy Murphy of the Mars Society Australia.

"Looking for similar sorts of fossils of the same age on earth can give them clues as to what to look for when they send robots to Mars," he said.

Christopher McKay of NASA's Spaceward Bound Program will be part of the team remotely controlling a rover being sent to Mars in 2012.

"What we see here in the Pilbara is macroscopic evidence of microscopic life from the very dawn of life itself and the structures are large enough that we could recognize them if we found them on Mars and drove up to them on a rover," he said.

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