The landscape looked lifeless. But satellite images from orbit identified geological formations containing minerals that microbes sometimes like to nestle in, and scientists dispatched a small rover to look at the rocks up close.
Fluorescent dyes sprayed on the ground lit up, proclaiming the presence of proteins and DNA. The rover also detected chlorophyll, the energy-producing molecule of plants.
And so scientists discovered life in Chile's Atacama Desert.
Life there, one of the driest places on Earth, is sparse, but no one was surprised to find it. And they weren't really hunting life on Earth. The exercise last summer was practice for the techniques scientists hope to use in the future on Mars, where the question of life remains intriguingly open.
"You've got to go look," said Alan Waggoner, director of the Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a participant in the NASA-sponsored project. "I'd give it a 50-50 shot that you could find it somewhere underground. But then that's a guess."
He is not alone. In an informal poll taken last month at a conference in the Netherlands, three quarters of 250 scientists working on the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission said they believed that Mars once possessed conditions hospitable to life. One quarter believe that it still does.
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