Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Scientists have identified unique, salt-resistant bacteria living beneath the surface of Chile's Atacama desert, the most Mars-like environment on Earth.
Researchers used a robotic rover designed by NASA engineers to successfully collect subsurface soil samples and locate sparse patches of microbes. The test mission will help NASA scientists prepare for the search for life during future planned Mars missions.
Both NASA and the European Space Agency plan to launch Martian rover deployment missions in 2020. ESA has been testing rover models in the Moroccan Sahara.
During the recent tests in Chile, researchers found small patchers of microbes living in water-starved, nutrient-poor soils beneath the desert surface.
"We have shown that a robotic rover can recover subsurface soil in the most Mars-like desert on Earth," Stephen Pointing, a professor of environmental science at the Yale-NUS College in Singapore, said in a news release. "This is important because most scientists agree that any life on Mars would have to occur below the surface to escape the harsh surface conditions where high radiation, low temperature and lack of water make life unlikely."
"We found microbes adapted to high salt levels, similar to what may be expected in the Martian subsurface," Pointing said. "These microbes are very different from those previously known to occur on the surface of deserts."
Like the dirt and dust on Mars, soil in Chile's Atacama Desert is very salty and subject to intense UV radiation. Liquid water is nonexistent on Mars. Chile's desert soils often go decades without rain.
The latest research -- published this week in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology -- proved microbes can survive Atacama's hard, Mars-like conditions.
NASA's autonomous test rover and its soil-sampling technology was developed by engineers at Carnegie-Mellon's Robotics Institute. When scientists compared soil samples collected by the rover with sample collected by hand, they found similar microbial communities.
Both samples hosted extremely patchy patterns of microbes.
"These results confirm a basic ecological rule that microbial life is patchy in Earth's most extreme habitats, which hints that past or present life on other planets may also exhibit patchiness," according to SETI Institute scientists Nathalie Cabrol and Kim Warren-Rhodes. "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."