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The Atacama Desert
Desert Picture 1 Desert Picture 2 Desert Picture 3
The Atacama Desert is one of the driest regions in the world. Occupying much of northern Chile, the desert stretches nearly 1000 km south from the Peruvian border and lies between the Pacific coastal range and the Andes mountains. It is these mountain ranges, in fact, that limit the rainfall in these arid highlands to almost immeasurable levels. The regions that receive the most moisture do so from fog at a rate of about 1 cm/year (for comparison, Pittsburgh, PA sees about 93 cm of rainfall a year). Consequently, most bodies of water in this region have long since evaporated away leaving behind a layer of the minerals that were once dissolved in the waters. These areas are known as salt flats, or salars. All this evaporation may make the Atacama sound like a hot place, but it is actually relatively cool thanks to its average elevation of 2400 m. Daytime temperatures usually range from 0 to 25 Celsius and, at the higher elevations, one can even find snow. Besides expansive salt-flats, the Atacama is also home to the third-largest geyser field in the world, the El Tatio Geysers, and the fantastic, erosion-formed landscapes of the Valley of the Moon.
Desert Picture 4 Desert Picture 5 Desert Picture 6
The lack of precipitation in the Atacama makes for a very desolate, inhospitable landscape. In addition, the high elevation means greater exposure to the sun's UV rays. This is exactly what makes the desert so interesting for astrobiologists: the Atacama Desert is very similar to Mars. By exploring the limits of life on Earth, astrobiologists seek to understand how life may survive on other worlds and how it may be detected. Thus, the Life in the Atacama project will be running its robot ZoŽ in the Salar Grande. ZoŽ is by no means the first CMU robot to travel in the desert. Two other robots, Hyperion and Nomad, have helped make a robot like ZoŽ possible. Besides validating the concept of a sun-tracking robot, Hyperion served as a testbed for technologies that will be used on ZoŽ. Nomad, originally designed to search for meteorites in Antarctica, raised the bar for autonomous, long-distance traverses.
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