Expert Voices

Want to Find Life on Mars? Start in Antarctica (Podcast)

Airborne electromagnetic sensor at Bull Pass
A helicopter begins a survey with an airborne electromagnetic mapping sensor at Bull Pass in the Wright Valley, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. (Image credit: J. Mikucki)

Charlie Heck, multimedia news editor at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), contributed this article to's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

One of the coldest, driest deserts on the planet, Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys may look like a frozen wasteland, but compelling new evidence shows that beneath the surface lies a salty aquifer that may support life. The environment is a possible analog for conditions beneath the surface of Mars, and other desolate locales in the solar system.

Scientists explore the Bonney Basin during the SkyTEM field season, November 2015. (Image credit: K. Hilton)

With funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, Jill Mikucki, a microbiology assistant professor at the University of Texas and Slawek Tulaczyk, a professor of Earth science at the University of California, Santa Cruz, were part of a team that detected extensive salty groundwater networks in Antarctica using a novel airborne electromagnetic mapping sensor system called SkyTEM.

Scientists watch as an airborne electromagnetic mapping sensor lifts off the ground near Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. (Image credit: L. Wahl)

In a podcast for NSF's Science360, Jill and Slawek talk about SkyTEM, their research results, and their time on Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys. [How Earth's 'Extremophiles' Could Aid Alien Life Search ]

A scientist prepares an airborne electromagnetic mapping sensor for a survey flight near Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. (Image credit: L. Wahl)

"The most striking part of being there is the lack of vegetation and the landscape that is made out of sediment rock and ice. It's somewhere between being on a different planet with the benefit of still breathing air, and traveling back in time before Earth had vegetation cover," said Tulaczyk. [Hunting for 'Worms From Hell': One Reporter's Journey ]

Scientists collect data from an airborne electromagnetic mapping sensor after surveying Blood Falls and the Taylor Glacier, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. (Image credit: J. Mikucki)

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To learn more about this new discovery and SkyTem, the paper, "Deep groundwater and potential subsurface habitats beneath an Antarctic dry valley," was published on April 28, 2015, in the open-access journal Nature Communications.

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