Discovery At the Edge of Our World

Many mysteries will continue to be revealed thanks to research and development in the Chilean Atacama desert.

“Impressions of a Black Hole.” Monica Hernandez. Feb 2020.
“Impressions of a Black Hole” by Monica Hernandez. Feb 2020.

The Chilean Atacama desert is one of the driest and highest in the world. It is also regarded as the oldest desert with arid conditions for roughly 150 million years. Yet, this harsh landscape is a unique laboratory for exciting science. For example, stromatolites form in the Atacama desert. These are considered the oldest life forms on Earth, developing from layered deposits of the byproducts of microorganisms such as blue-green algae. In addition, new species of dinosaurs were discovered in the Atacama desert, and hundreds of mummies from ancient indigenous groups predating those from Egypt. Archaeological evidence in the desert has also uncovered an ancient super earthquake above 9.5 on the Richter scale that unleashed a mega-tsunami across continents.  

The Atacama desert’s unique conditions also present a series of advantages for space science. For example, NASA's Chemical Laptop has also been tested in the Atacama desert. A partnership between the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, it is a device designed to detect 17 amino acids. These amino acids can be biosignatures for organic matter’s adaptation to extreme conditions. Likewise, in the Chajnantor Plateau, 5,000 meters above sea level, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is pioneering cutting-edge astronomy, which has been advancing our understanding of the cosmos, unlike any other period in history.

ALMA Observatory