Men From Atacama

LHD-4 Santiago, Chile June 9, 1966

In the program to determine whether life, as they knew it, existed on Earth, the Martian scientists launched an interplanetary laboratory, which alighted, of all places, high on the Atacama Desert of Chile.

The television camera rose and looked about without result; instruments responded with only a disappointing click or two for lack of water or pressure but tapped madly about the radiation and wind. The soil sampler crabbed across the volcanic dust, ingested a gram or two, and in the universal language of instruments and their makers it signaled home the results: Negative. The Mare men had no choice. By return beam they ordered the laboratory to decontaminate. And even today a pile of antiseptic ash marks the site.

Two scientists from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory lived the last month on that same desert after a similar flight of fancy of their own, but in the opposite direction. Their purpose was to learn more about the probability of life on Mars, and to develop means of discovering it. They reasoned that before the National Aeronautics and Space Agency invested heavily in equipment that it could only hope would be suited to exploring Mars, it ought to take a look at the earthly terrain probably most similar. And so the space scientist, Richard Davies, and the soil microbiologist, Roy Cameron, came to Atacama.

They left a sobered and drier pair, and the great astronomers# dream of Martian life had shriveled. Their visit was very dramatic for Chile and the Atacama. But then it had already become something of a watering hole; forgive the metaphor, for scientists in the more exotic specialties such as weather satellite surveys, solar energy, desalinization and cloud milking. Thus, in fractions, a general knowledge is accumulating at last of this generally ignored desert that in its way is as fascinating as Mars.

But first the desert and the space scientists. Their generation learned in the sixth grade that Mars had canals and, depending on the teacher’s imagination, doubtless some odd people besides. Later, it was told to expect little beyond scrub bushes, with thorns. After the photos by Mariner IV the optimists were hoping to find lichens, or perhaps no more than microorganisms. And after Atacama the prospect is that these minutiae, if they exist out there in the macro at all$ will not be near the surface where they belong but crucial inches below.

The microorganisms upon which earthly life is dependent crowd 100 million to 10 billion strong in a gram of typical North American garden topsoil. A gram sample near the surface of the Atacama contains about 50. Such are the fortunes of prospectors for Martian life these days that microbiologist Cameron takes some hope from the fact that down a few inches the count goes up to all of 100. Ordinarily the count would be expected to drop with depth. One concludes that these microscopic living things find the Atacama crust no more attractive than does man.

By extension the same tendency might prevail on Mars. It is this type of information that led the specialists to Atacama:

• Spectroscope analysis indicates that a centimeter-diameter column of Martian atmosphere contains 14/1000 of a millimeter of water vapor, where as Earth’s atmosphere contains from 10 to 20 millimeters. Atacama competes with a place called Taneyrouft in the Algerian Sahara for the title of driest place on earth.

• Mariner IV experiments showed that the Mars surface atmosphere is about as dense as is the Earth’s at 100,000 feet. In Atacama scientists can encounter the desert conditions at 20,000 feet. There are unconfirmed reports that because of certain local conditions the pressure may actually be lower at that altitude on the Atacama than it would be at the same height in other parts of the world.

In truth these scientists who are preparing the way to Mars were unprepared for Atacama. Dr. Cameron had tramped the deserts of the U.S. Southwest, the volcanic Kau in Hawaii and the Valley of 10,000 Smokes in Alaska, where the sulfur fumes layer in the air. “But that Atacama.” he said here before returning to Pasadena, “is a terrible thing. I was surprised. I didn’t expect such a salt desert…hard salt.”

Probably no one has ever been prepared for the Atacama. This is not a desert in the Virgil Partch manner. There is no endless sand plain of the sort that Vip’s withered derelicts crawl across so fondly. It begins up in the Andes above 20,000 feet, on the slopes of the still-smoking volcanoes that have done their part for the desert for, centuries. The lava flowed toward the sea 100 miles away, and that congealed downpour makes up much of the present desert, eddying around lesser runs of older mountains that continue to the water’s edge.

All of this bombast occurred elsewhere as well, back when the world was an onion. But by one theory the Atacama never changed. “It may be old in geological formation.” said Cameron, “but it is very young in terms of soil formation.” No rains ever came to leach out the salts. No grass grew to prod the evolutionary process. Today the banks of the rare stream that runs from the cordillera are caked white with crystals. More often than not the stream dries before it makes the sea.

Scattered about are salt flats where it is supposed that the one try at lakes ended in evaporation. By another explanation the flats are the remains of an ancient inland sea, which did advance the original soil at least to the salt stage. The fact that the terrain is generally burred smooth is cited as another evidence of water’s one-time presence. In any case, salt is its only calling card.

Here and there among the flats are copper and iron ore bodies, nitrate beds and bits of most of the other minerals. Man learned well the methods of extracting the desert’s marketables. But he never focused so much attention on the desert itself -- not so much as he did, say, on Mars.

This led to an unconscious disrespect. One of the desert’s characteristics is its passiveness. It never instigates change. But once it is changed, all the evidence is meticulously recorded. Pack animals that despair up along the trails near the Bolivian border fall with regularity, creating with their carcasses other parallel paths. The bodies dry preserved in the wind and the sun. Years after, their fat moistens the ash beneath them. But even here, says Cameron, he could detect no flicker of organic activity that would have flourished elsewhere.

Trails that are abandoned in this age of guarded borders remain, as they were half a century ago, beaten hard by a then much broader commerce among the heedless inhabitants of Peru, Bolivia and Chile.

Down the Andes at Indio Muerto the Inca burial grounds rendered up their charges pretty much as deposited: the bodies crouched in a fetal position, the neck broken and the face staring Skyward in the vertical graves. The skin is still there these 600 years or so later.

The Incas mined for turquoise in the very mountain that at nearby El Salvador now turns out copper. Their runners beat a path down from what is now Peru. That packed earth is still clearly visible, a scratch across the desert’s face. But in many places other interests overlay. The copper mountain, for instance, is gradually being pulled down in ore cars and as it disintegrates so do the rat’s-nest mines of the Incas, with their two exits in case of collapse. Outside one such site the Incas camped from time to time, over centuries apparently, and their garbage dump has turned up all manner of artifact in neatly layered recordings of the Indians’ comings and goings. The layers are visible because the modern miners cut a road through the dump when they began operations 7 years ago. Soon the road and the dump and the history will tumble away. And one day this mountain will have disappeared, just as did the one at the now “exhausted” mine at Potrerillos a few spectacular miles away.

But so vast is the desert and so full of barren mountains that the disappearance of two or three of them somehow seems less reprehensible, despite their beauty in the sun. In Cameron’s opinion the greater villain is the four-wheel drive vehicle. Every rut is a scar that will not heal. And a decade or two of prospectors, gawkers, and visiting scientists has criss-crossed the virgin soil wholesale in the Atacama (and more so in the U.S. Southwest). The actual mining operations tend to be more limited if more violent in their disruption. In fact, around some of the nitrates mines -- as well as on the volcanic slopes -- the surface is so broken and hard that Cameron feels that what with its other arid assets the Atacama is perfect for astronaut training. He will recommend this, as he did the Kau and the Alaskan deserts -- both subsequently used by astronauts.

On the microscopic scale, Cameron’s preliminary findings indicated that the occasional incursion of civilization has had little effect. Around abandoned nitrates mines there was little evidence of lingering organic disturbances introduced by the camps. In the desert, not long after its dropping even rabbit dung is free of living organisms. The dung, to be sure, remains, as do the rabbit’s hapless tracks and eventually the carcass.

Occasionally Cameron found mudflows, an overlay of more conventional soil washed over by the rare rain. “In nearly all desert soi13 there is a rapid growth of organisms when water is supplied. I picked up samples of dried mud from Atacama and kept them moist for four days. Nothing grew.” Microorganisms elsewhere are known to have lain dormant for 75 years and more.

It is in this deathly self-cleansing that scientists find one of the lessons of Atacama applicable to Mars. Both Davies and Cameron now believe that the concern for possible contamination of other planets is overdone. The hostility of this desert reinforces their argument. The microbes that man brings to Atacama do not survive, and the conditions on Mars are thought to be similar but sterner. On the other hand, desert microorganisms tend to die in conditions more favorable for the majority of their ilk.

This issue of contamination was the coincidental cause for the scientists’ visit, in fact. Back in 1959 Davies had written an article among many reflecting the view that contamination might be an important factor in space travel. For some of the public this conjured the picture of cold germs as big as golf balls conquering Mars after man’s landing.

In 1965 Davies went to Buenos Aires to deliver a paper refuting his earlier view. It was suggested that on the way home he ought to look at Atacama. Through the cooperation of Chilean geologists in Santiago and Antofagasta, Davies stopped for three soil samples that he sent back to Cameron by diplomatic pouch.

Analysis proved so provocative that it led to the second, more extensive visit by the pair. Here is a breakdown of what the first samples contained:

Heterotrophes -- these microorganisms that live on organic material were present in very low numbers.
Autotrophes -- (that live on inorganic matter)
Chemo -- there were relatively large numbers of highly specialized microorganisms, such as actinomycetes that live on sulfur compounds. This sort is little found in normal soils.
Photo -- the scientists found no algae. This became a prime quest in the second visit because, as Cameron pointed out, “it is hard to conceive of life without photosynthetic organisms.” Such an organism would contain chlorophyll and would form carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water through use of sunlight energy.
Aerobes -- these microorganisms that require air to endure were und in numbers less than 100 in the Atacama samples.
Samples from deserts of the southwest United States contain from 1 million to 10 million.
Anaerobes -- other deserts generally contain 10,000 to 100,000 of these microorganisms that thrive without free oxygen. Atacama offered less than 100.
Fungi -- virtually no mold discovered, whereas it sometimes is present in other deserts.

One conclusion Cameron drew from all this was that “Atacama is not encouraging for looking for life on Mars.” But since the search is still on, a second conclusion could be that the tools for exploration should be re-designed.

Actually no design has been fixed, but so far the proposals for automated biology labs to be landed on Mars fall short, in Cameron’s opinion, on two counts. They would obtain too small a soil sample, at the surface instead of below it, and they would employ a growth medium for the soil analysis geared to earthly rather than to Martian requirements. The growth medium, or food, is necessary to increase the activity of the sample’s microorganisms until they can be more easily detected. They are too small to be counted by practical means in their unaccelerated state.

Davies and Cameron are hopeful that with the results of the just-completed extensive sampling of Atacama they will be able to influence the nature of the Mars life detection mission tentatively projected for 1973. (A Mars flight is scheduled for 1969, but after much debate there is still no decision on what it is to attempt.)

Already there are several proposals for automated soil analysis by a package landed softly on Mars. A system called the Gulliver would shoot out a sticky string, reel it across the ground and into the growth medium, which would contain a radioactive element that could be monitored electronically, If this element multiplied it could be assumed that growth occurred and therefore that living organisms in fact exist on Mars.

Another system called Wolftrap would collect soil by vacuum, deposit it in a growth medium, and monitor the density of the mixture by light to detect any thickening that would indicate activity.

But these plans would involve analysis of a gram or less of soil. “You might miss the life,” 6aid Cameron after the Atacama experience. “Better to take 100 grams, from a larger area.”

Even more critical, perhaps, for the success of the mission is the nature of the growth medium. Cameron explained that the only way he obtained rapid growth of the organisms in the Atacama soil was to place it in an extract of that soil or in a synthesized chemical equivalent to the original soil’s composition. In effect, what the water did not do for the Atacama mud, the solution composed of the soil’s components themselves did quite effectively.

The implication for the Mars mission is that instead of using an earthbound growth medium, as the Gulliver or Wolftrap would do, the interplanetary laboratory must be much more sophisticated. It must be able to obtain a soil sample and then produce a growth medium of either an extract or a synthesis of that soil. Lacking that, the microorganisms so sought after on Mars might fail to grow and the mission could end in undeserved failure.

In a simplification, the microorganisms of the Atacama “like” the salts and minerals of their environment and will not multiply in the richer organic media that seemingly would favor them. Likewise, the Martian microbes, if there are any, would not react to the prescription written by earthbound experience.
This introduces on the micro-organic level the conflict between basic and applied science that has been implicit in most approaches to the Atacama if not to Mars.

While all the emphasis so far in the Mars program has been on the engineering aspects of life detection, Cameron would prefer to obtain a solid general knowledge of the planet first. For instance, he would concentrate on accurate measurement of Mars’ radiation, temperature, moisture and mineralogy, “because then you can predict more realistically what kind of life detection experiment is needed -- and what kind of life could exist there and, perhaps, why it doesn’t.”

And of course these same kinds of measurements have not even been done in detail on the Atacama. Davies and Cameron brought more instruments than they were able to use because of difficulties in getting them through customs. They learned a great deal about the logistics of international projects as they gathered scientific information for an interplanetary one. But Davies figures that the total cost will be under $6000 and that it may save that many times over. He thinks they may well return for more work high in Atacama’s mountains. “In any case, others will want to come because they’ll be skeptical of our findings,” he said.

Specifically, what they accomplished was collection of 660 pounds of soil, sand, rocks and nitrate ore in 36 separate samples from 22 sites. The covered area ran from 45 miles south of Antofagasta to Pisagua on the coast and inland to the nitrate mine towns of Pedro de Valdivia, Maria Elona and Victoria, as well as Tarapaca and then over to San Pedro de Conchi and finally up to the Bolivian border on the mountain of Aucanquilcha.

Cameron said that they took 50 pounds of samples on the mountain up to the 6200-meter level -- just under 20,000 ft. on what he said is a 6400-meter mountain. He figures this was the highest point from which a full soil sample has yet been taken. They drove up the mountain by Landover, up a mining road. Winds averaged 20 to 30 M.P.H. there; the temperature was 28 degrees Fahrenheit at 1:30 in the afternoon. It was bright beyond the capacity of Davies’ light meter (he took numerous pictures). There were a few patches of snow but little melting, for in the reduced pressure the snow sublimated into vapor. This also is believed to occur on Mars, where there seems to be no liquid H 2 0.

In six months the soil analysis should be complete and the two scientists will publish their findings. In November Cameron will return to Chile, this time to visit in a lesser-known desert, Tierra Victoria, nestled between two glaciers in Antarctica. He will seek there a microorganism that might live in the presence of evaporating snow, as might occur on Mars. But then, this was a hope for Atacama. Davies put it this way: “We hoped an organism would have developed that despite cold and low pressure could draw water out of the atmosphere and use it. There is nothing to indicate this so far. There is certainly nothing macroscopic. There is heavy water vapor from the sea near Iquique that comes right down to the surface but the ground is just as barren as can be. We had this hope. But you have to be honest about your own ideas. There is nothing to support it.”

Another benefit of the research could be the application of knowledge of the soil in the area’s rather limited farming. For the desert in general Cameron sees little hope of reclamation without far more water than any irrigation engineer can foresee. But along the few rivers there are occasional areas of unexpected green. Their expansion ultimately will depend on the broadening of general knowledge of deserts. Cameron says that until outer space supplied the goad, the only extensive work seems to have been that done by the Germans in the Sahara in the late ‘30s. It was quite good work, too, he says, though he suspects that it was a cover for planners of the Afrika Korps. It also develops that two years ago some Russian scientists trekked the Atacama. What they found went home with them and there is a difference of opinion as to whether they were searching for ground water or microorganisms.

Any comprehensive study of this desert will be an undertaking indeed, for it stretches nearly 2000 miles, if thinly, up into Peru and Bolivia. Even the eastern side of the Andes is hardly fecund. The reason given for its existence is that in the Pacific off Chile’s coast there is a unique confluence of cold ocean currents and moisture-laden wind patterns that together deny the land its rain. The affected area includes 39 per cent of Chile’s land. Eleven per cent of Chile’s people live there, mostly in cities along the coast.

Though most Incoming winds are dry there is an occasional dissenter. And near La Serena on the southern end of the desert there are a few freak acres that constitute the Rain Forest of Father Jorge. The winds howl and the rains fall and of all things, the trees grow tall. The same desolate ash surrounds it on all aides, where the clouds disappear as the visitor gapes.

There is some conjecture that the desert’s barrenness begets more of the same, that if only some vegetation could get started it would alter the thermal dryness and attract the moisture that would allow bigger plants. Some think this was the origin of Father Jorge’s Rain Forest. An experiment is planned further north on the coast to sink deep wells, start ground cover and see where it leads. Atacama is capable of other quirks. In some areas at springtime it blooms overnight, the hillsides sprinkled with the most delicate flowers. They are not found elsewhere. From time to time a heavy rain will fall in a small area; Usually it is brief and of great intensity.

The Atacama’s nature or eccentricities have attracted scientists to several equally unusual projects. Among them:

Pressure Patterns -- When the Nimbus weather satellite flow over a particularly section just south of the Chuqui-camata copper mine it recorded some inexplicable readings of heat reflection. So NASA received permission to send down a big jet-flying laboratory to fly a grid pattern across the desert to get the story. It appropriately invited Chilean authorities to accompany the flights, which turned out to be just 100 feet off the surface of this flat valley and then an equal distance off the slopes of the enclosing volcanoes. The results are expected in six months, and it will take that long for some of the passengers and crew to forget how close they came to those mountains.
Observatories -- Suddenly all the groups that have invested heavily in telescopes in the northern hemisphere are realizing that a look from the south is becoming just as important. Chile looks like the best place to locate, and the Atacama the best place in Chile. A Palo mar-sized telescope is to be built on Morado Mountain near La Serena by a Carnegie group. For a while it looked as if a Ford Foundation-sponsored group was going to do about the same thing on the other side of the hill, but the duplication may now be avoided. There are already extensive observations underway with lesser equipment on a 6000-foot mountain nearby. The Russians are also telescope-building but near Valparaiso and thus south of Atacama. In a more practical application of similar technology NASA has built a tracking station north of Santiago.
Fog Milking -- What Davies could not find a microorganism capable of doing, removal and utilization of water from the air, modern methods have halfway accomplished. Up where the fog lies thick over barren ground the Chileans are experimenting with great nylon-strung frames that capture the water -- so far by the pint.
Solar Energy -- The University of Santa Maria in Valparaiso has experimented extensively in using the ubiquitous Atacama sun. The salt hardness usually eliminates the dust problem and to be sure there are few cloudy days. In the cafeteria at the University of the North in Antofagasta the water is heated by solar energy. “It won’t scald you,” says Martin Prochnik, minerals officer for the U.S. Embassy, “but it’s free.” The Anglo-Lautaro nitrates mining company is using a solar process to produce iodine as a byproduct.
Windmills -- One of the more exotic investigations concerns the potential as a power source of the winds that course the desert. In some places the wind blows east to west during part of the day and the reverse during the rest. By one account, the right windmill could convert this energy into enough electricity to operate a mina. There are other offbeat ideas for power, such as use of the heat in the thermal springs that turn up here and there in the Andes. Some New Zealanders will investigate what is practical in this regard.

In the area of lose pragmatic studies, archeology received a filip recently with discovery in the north of evidence that Indiana may have inhibited the place as long ago as 5000 B.C. Most of the work until now indicated that their history extended back only to 1100 A.D. or so. More archeologists are expected in the quest that could turn up what Chile so self-consciously lacks: the sense of a unique history that unites otherwise diverse segments of the population.

Often over canapés, women with powdered noses ask scientists Cameron and Davies the ultimate question -- Is there life on Mars? Accordingly they have evolved a stock answer -- There will be when we got there.

This brings up another question, maintenance of life, as we know it on that planet whether or not it exists there now. Cameron has no doubt that this will be life in a greenhouse, with man bringing all his necessities with him. And again, Atacama offers a proving ground, for when man is so audacious as to live on that land he must bring all of his needs on his back. There is not even wood for a fire, hence development here of a solar stove that broils by reflection.

The mineral reward of the desert is even great enough to make practical the hothouse sustenance of entire communities such as the mining town of El Salvador. And then the physical scientists must share this Atacama laboratory with their compatriots in the social sciences. One wonders if it will come to that on Mars. On Atacama anyway, there is still room enough for all the serious scientists, if they bring their own water.


Mr. Diuguid is a 1965 Alicia Patterson Fund fellowship award winner on leave from The Washington Post. Permission to publish this article may be sought from the Foreign Editor, The Washington Post.

Received in New York June 13, 1966