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  • richardmitnick 3:17 pm on April 20, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Atacama Desert, Detecting Life in the Driest Place on Earth,   

    From JPL-Caltech: “Detecting Life in the Driest Place on Earth” 

    NASA JPL Banner

    JPL-Caltech

    April 20, 2017
    Andrew Good
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-393-2433
    andrew.c.good@jpl.nasa.gov

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    Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth — and a ready analog for Mars’ rugged, arid terrain. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    2
    The Chemical Laptop, a life-detecting device designed for other planets, was recently tested in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    3
    This automated extractor uses water, high pressure and high temperature to release amino acids trapped inside of soil samples. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    4
    The JPL team that recently tested life-detecting devices in Chile’s Atacama Desert, from left to right: Peter Willis, Jessica Creamer, Fernanda Mora, Eric Tavares Da Costa and Florian Kehl. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Few places are as hostile to life as Chile’s Atacama Desert. It’s the driest place on Earth, and only the hardiest microbes survive there. Its rocky landscape has lain undisturbed for eons, exposed to extreme temperatures and radiation from the sun.

    If you can find life here, you might be able to find it in an even harsher environment — like the surface of Mars. That’s why a team of researchers from NASA and several universities visited the Atacama in February. They spent 10 days testing devices that could one day be used to search for signs of life on other worlds. That group included a team from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, working on a portable chemistry lab called the Chemical Laptop.

    With just a small water sample, the Laptop can check for amino acids, the organic molecules that are widespread in our solar system and considered the building blocks of all life as we know it. Liquid-based analysis techniques have been shown to be orders of magnitude more sensitive than gas-based methods for the same kinds of samples. But when you scoop up a sample from Mars, the amino acids you’re looking for will be trapped inside of or chemically bonded to minerals.

    To break down those bonds, JPL has designed another piece of technology, a subcritical water extractor that would act as the “front end” for the Laptop. This extractor uses water to release the amino acids from a soil sample, leaving them ready to be analyzed by the Chemical Laptop.

    “These two pieces of technology work together so that we can search for biosignatures in solid samples on rocky or icy worlds,” said Peter Willis of JPL, the project’s principal investigator. “The Atacama served as a proving ground to see how this technology would work on an arid planet like Mars.”

    To find life, just add water

    Willis’ team revisited an Atacama site he first went to in 2005. At that time, the extractor he used was manually operated; in February, the team used an automated extractor designed by Florian Kehl, a postdoctoral researcher at JPL.

    The extractor ingests soil and regolith samples and mixes them with water. Then, it subjects the samples to high pressure and temperature to get the organics out.

    “At high temperatures, water has the ability to dissolve the organic compounds from the soil,” Kehl said. “Think of a tea bag: in cold water, not much happens. But when you add hot water, the tea releases an entire bouquet of molecules that gives the water a particular flavor, color and smell.”

    To remove the amino acids from those minerals, the water has to get much hotter than your ordinary cup of tea: Kehl said the extractor is currently able to reach temperatures as high as 392 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius).

    Liquid samples would be more readily available on ocean worlds like Jupiter’s moon Europa, Kehl said. There, the extractor might still be necessary, as amino acids could be bonded to minerals mixed into the ice. They also may be present as part of larger molecules, which the extractor could break into smaller building blocks before analyzing them with the Chemical Laptop. Once the extractor has prepared its samples, the Laptop can do its work.

    NASA’s own tricorder

    The Chemical Laptop checks liquid samples for a set of 17 amino acids — what the team refers to as “the Signature 17.” By looking at the types, amounts and geometries of these amino acids in a sample, it’s possible to infer the presence of life.

    “All these molecules ‘like’ being in water,” said Fernanda Mora of JPL, the Chemical Laptop’s lead scientist. “They dissolve in water and they don’t evaporate easily, so they’re much easier to detect in water.”

    The Laptop mixes liquid samples with a fluorescent dye, which attaches to amino acids and makes it possible to detect them when illuminated by a laser.

    Then, the sample is injected onto a separation microchip. A voltage is applied between the two ends of the channel, causing the amino acids to move at different speeds towards the end, where the laser is shining. Amino acids can be identified by how quickly they move through the channel. As the molecules pass through the laser, they emit light that is used to quantify how much of each amino acid is present.

    “The idea is to automate and miniaturize all the steps you would do manually in a chemistry lab on Earth,” Mora said. “That way, we can do the same analyses on another world simply by sending commands with a computer.”

    The near-term goal is to integrate the extractor and Chemical Laptop into a single, automated device. It would be tested during future field campaigns to the Atacama Desert with a team of researchers led by Brian Glass of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

    “These are some of the hardest samples to analyze you can get on the planet,” Mora said of the team’s work in the Atacama. She added that in the future, the team wants to test this technology in icy environments like Antarctica. Those could serve as analogs to Europa and other ocean worlds, where liquid samples would be more readily plentiful.

    See the full article here .

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 7:59 pm on December 28, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Atacama Desert, How humans survived in the barren Atacama Desert 13000 years ago   

    From ars technica: “How humans survived in the barren Atacama Desert 13,000 years ago” Revised for more Optical telescopes 

    Ars Technica
    ars technica

    12/28/2016
    Annalee Newitz

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    The Atacama Desert today is barren, its sands encrusted with salt. And yet there were thriving human settlements there 12,000 years ago.
    Vallerio Pilar

    Home of:

    ESO/LaSilla
    ESO/LaSilla

    ESO/VLT at Cerro Paranal, Chile
    ESO/VLT at Cerro Paranal, Chile

    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at  Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres
    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

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    Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory
    Blanco 4.0-m Telescope
    SOAR 4.1-m Telescope
    Gemini South 8.1-m Telescope

    When humans first arrived in the Americas, roughly 18,000 to 20,000 years ago, they traveled by boat along the continents’ shorelines. Many settled in coastal regions or along rivers that took them inland from the sea. Some made it all the way down to Chile quite quickly; there’s evidence for a human settlement there from more than 14,000 years ago at a site called Monte Verde. Another settlement called Quebrada Maní, dating back almost 13,000 years, was recently discovered north of Monte Verde in one of the most arid deserts in the world: the Atacama, whose salt-encrusted sands repel even the hardiest of plants. It seemed an impossible place for early humans to settle, but now we understand how they did it.

    At a presentation during the American Geophysical Union meeting this month, UC Berkeley environmental science researcher Marco Pfeiffer explained how he and his team investigated the Atacama desert’s deep environmental history. Beneath the desert’s salt crust, they found a buried layer of plant and animal remains between 9,000 and 17,000 years old. There were freshwater plants and mosses, as well as snails and plants that prefer brackish water. Quickly it became obvious this land had not always been desert—what Pfeiffer and his colleagues saw suggested wetlands fed by fresh water.

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    Chile’s early archaeological sites, named and dated. The yellow area shows the extension of the Atacama Desert hyperarid core. Also note the surrounding mountains that block many rainy weather systems. Quaternary Science Reviews

    But where could this water have come from? The high mountains surrounding the Atacama are a major barrier to weather systems that bring rain, which is partly why the area is lifeless today. Maybe, they reasoned, the water came from the mountains themselves. Based on previous studies, they already knew that rainfall in the area was six times higher than today’s average in that 9,000- to 17,000-years-ago range. So they used a computer model to figure out how all that water would have drained off the mountain peaks to form streams and pools in the Atacama. “We saw that water must have been accumulating,” Pfeiffer said. As a result, the desert bloomed into a marshy ecosystem which could easily have supported a number of human settlements.

    Indeed, Pfeiffer says that his team has found evidence of human settlements in Atacama’s surrounding flatlands, which they are still investigating. Now that they understand climate change in the region, Pfeiffer added, it will be easier for archaeologists to account for the oddly large population in the area. The history of humanity in the Americas isn’t just the story of vanished peoples—it’s also the tale of lost ecosystems.

    See the full article here .

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    STEM Icon
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    Ars Technica was founded in 1998 when Founder & Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher announced his plans for starting a publication devoted to technology that would cater to what he called “alpha geeks”: technologists and IT professionals. Ken’s vision was to build a publication with a simple editorial mission: be “technically savvy, up-to-date, and more fun” than what was currently popular in the space. In the ensuing years, with formidable contributions by a unique editorial staff, Ars Technica became a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, breakdowns of the latest scientific advancements, gadget reviews, software, hardware, and nearly everything else found in between layers of silicon.

    Ars Technica innovates by listening to its core readership. Readers have come to demand devotedness to accuracy and integrity, flanked by a willingness to leave each day’s meaningless, click-bait fodder by the wayside. The result is something unique: the unparalleled marriage of breadth and depth in technology journalism. By 2001, Ars Technica was regularly producing news reports, op-eds, and the like, but the company stood out from the competition by regularly providing long thought-pieces and in-depth explainers.

    And thanks to its readership, Ars Technica also accomplished a number of industry leading moves. In 2001, Ars launched a digital subscription service when such things were non-existent for digital media. Ars was also the first IT publication to begin covering the resurgence of Apple, and the first to draw analytical and cultural ties between the world of high technology and gaming. Ars was also first to begin selling its long form content in digitally distributable forms, such as PDFs and eventually eBooks (again, starting in 2001).

     
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