Arriving in the Atacama

Well here we are in Chile! We’re planning to look at silica sinters at the Mars analog environment of El Tatio, whose formations resemble silica formations in the Columbia Hills. Columbia Hills was previously explored by the Spirit rover and is now a candidate for the landing site of the Mars 2020 rover, whose mission goals include the collection of samples for transport back to Earth. Hopefully these samples will contain biomarkers, or ancient organic molecules, with which scientists will be able to study the formation and function of any life on Mars. Studying biomarkers and the DNA of ancient and current microbial communities at El Tatio will help us understand how life may function in these environments, and what to look for should a rover have the opportunity to collect samples from Columbia Hills or a similar location. We also hope to test the MinION sequencer in the field, on flow cells that are now 8 months old and which Mark has irradiated to the level that the sequencer would receive en route to Mars. It did manage to sequence successfully in the lab, which is a good sign! Now it’s time to put it through its paces. Lastly, we hope to visit the Salar de Atacama, which contain microbialites and microbial mats with diverse and well-preserved communities. These microbialites trap minerals and precipitate sediment, leaving biomarkers in the rock as clues to their existence. Studying these microbialite communities will help to gain a greater understanding of how microbes and the geologic environment interact and influence each other, and what clues this may leave in a martian environment.