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Head to Tibet for a Taste of Mars

* 10:00 03 March 2007

* From New Scientist Print Edition..

Want to experience ancient Mars? Look no further than the Qaidam basin in north-west Tibet. A combination of cold and dryness makes it potentially the best place on Earth to find microbes similar to those on ancient Mars.

A team led by Christopher McKay of NASA Ames Research Center in California ventured into the Qaidam wastes in search of a climate as similar to that of Mars as possible. With 1.5 centimetres of rain per year, Qaidam is not as dry as the Atacama desert in Chile, nor does its -10C average winter temperature sink to the levels found in the frigid valleys of Antarctica (Journal of Geophysical Research, vol 112, p G01016). Together, though, the cold and aridity provide conditions that McKay believes may emulate the Mars of 3 billion years ago, a place which may have harboured microbial life.

The heat of Atacama rules it out as a potential stand-in for the Red Planet, while Antarctica has too much moisture. Qaidam might be the perfect candidate.

"If Viking landed in Tibet and scooped up soil, would it be able to detect life?" McKay asks.


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