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: © 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: © 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: © 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: © 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: © J. Mikucki)

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(Image: ©

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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