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Part 1
In search of the driest place on Earth; Off to dry Jebel Uweinat

The Atacama desert is one of the driest places on Earth. Typically it rains there a few times a decade and on the average it is 50 times drier then Death Valley, receiving <1 mm/year. In most locations coastal fog brings some moisture. In the core region of the Atacama where high coastal mountains block the fog we find the driest place we have ever found on Earth. Here the soils are "Mars-like". There are virtually no bacteria in the soil, very little organic material, and the presence of a non-biological oxidizing chemical. This is the only place on Earth that we know of where the Viking Lander could have landed, scooped up some soil, and failed to find evidence for life on Earth.

Are there other Mars-like soils on Earth? We have begun a search. Our next target is the Sahara desert in Africa. One of the worlds largest and most famous deserts. We choose the Sahara because of data from the NASA-NASDA TRMM mission. The data from this missions shows rainfall throughout the year. You can see from the results of this mission that there is a location in the Sahara - just at the junction of Lybia, Egypt and Sudan that does not receive rainfall at any time of year. Looking at the TRMM data from 1998, 1999, and 2000 we did not see any evidence for rain at this site. This area is known as Jebel Uweinat. This could be another place on Earth with Mars-like soils.

The purpose of this first field trip is to do a quick reconnaissance of the area and collect some samples of the desert sand for analysis. This is in a way, ground truth for the TRMM data. If the results indicate that these soils are as Mars-like as the Atacama soils then we will come back with a major expedition to study this site.

<Editor's note> If you point a mapping program (such as Google Earth) at N 21° 55' , E 25°, you will see the mountainous region of Jebel Uweinat rising out of the desert sand.

Go on to Part 2

Return to Here Today; Gone to Mars

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NASA Official: Mark León
Last Updated: May 2005
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