A Weed Grows in Chile

The Back Story

PHOTO: Robb Mandelbaum

IEEE Spectrum's Jean Kumagai in Chile's Atacama Desert

Let's face it: a lot of engineering gets done within the climate-controlled, fluorescent-lit confines of the modern office park. But engineers also go to great lengths in pursuit of new technology, as Jean Kumagai learned during a trip to Chile's Atacama Desert last fall.

She spent four days there hanging out with a group of engineers who were testing a prototype of the next-generation Mars rover. Unlike the current rovers, this one will be capable of searching for the kinds of microorganisms that scientists speculate once thrived on Mars, and might yet be hanging on beneath the surface today. The Atacama is perhaps the most Mars-like place on Earth; the engineers and their robot spent the better part of three months camping out there.

The engineers all insisted they didn't want to be anywhere else, but the desert does take its toll, Kumagai saw firsthand. One unlucky postdoc got hit with the flu and spent several days at a clinic in town. Another researcher kept a private stash of coca leaf tea, to be dispensed to those suffering from altitude-related malaise. Tempers occasionally flared from the sheer stress of spending day and night with the same small group of people. And forget everything your mother taught you about hygiene or modesty: even a daily shower wouldn't keep away the ever-present dust, and there were no restrooms out in the field.

But the place also has a certain beauty, Kumagai says. "Coming from New York City, I'm accustomed to being bombarded with every kind of distraction. It's a struggle to tune out the noise." In the desert, though, it's just the opposite. "At first it seems kind of monotonous, but then your senses start to wake up," she says. The sighting of a hawk circling overhead, or a lone beetle creeping across the sand, or a small green plant sprouting improbably out of rock and crumbly dirt, is a delight. "You see the sun rise and crest and then set, and you really appreciate the length of a single day."

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