When NASA scientists want to simulate a journey to Mars they head to Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Known as the driest place on the planet, the 41,000 square mile collection of salt lakes, sand and lava is the closest place on Earth that resembles to surface of the red planet and the testing ground for a solar-powered rover that NASA hopes will scan the surface of Mars for microbes and other forms of life.

Looking like a bathtub on wheels, the rover, nicknamed Zoe, sports four bike tires, a main base and solar panels on top. It was designed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and began its two-week field trip to northern Chile on June 17.

How it handles the rough terrain of the Atacama Desert could decide how NASA equips its next space trip to Mars in 2020.

“Scientifically, the study helps us understand how life survives in extreme environments with implications to both Earth and Mars," said David Wettergreen, research professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute and principal investigator for the Life in the Atacama project, according to Space.com. "Technologically, we are learning about the mechanisms and the algorithms that will enable us to explore the subsurface of other planets."

Due to its dry climate and high altitude –about 10,000 feet above sea level– both researchers and filmmakers have used the Atacama Desert for their work.

In 2003, a group of researchers for Science recreated the tests used by the Viking 1 and Viking 2 Mars landers to detect life on the red planet. The researchers were unable to find any signs of life in the Atacama soil.

NASA researchers have also used work from the Phoenix Mars Lander in the area and the Atacama is also a testing site for the NASA-funded Earth-Mars Cave Detection Program.

Besides testing on the ground, the high altitude, nearly non-existent cloud cover, dry air, and lack of light pollution and radio interference have made the Atacama one of the world’s best places for astronomical observations.

The La Silla Observatory and The Paranal Observatory, which includes the very Large Telescope, are both housed in the desert.

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