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Research in Deserts Contributes to Space Exploration

Since the desert environment is most reminiscent of that of several barren, apparently lifeless planetary bodies, deserts have been used as simulators for testing planetary exploration equipment. For example, NASA conducted experiments in US southwestern deserts to test communication rovers and to improve human-robot interactions in conditions similar to those on the Moon and Mars (Volpe 1999). The Nomad robot, designed for long-distance planetary exploration, successfully traversed the Atacama Desert, and a remotelyguided rover explored the distribution and diversity of life in this desert as an analogue to Mars, not only because it is extremely dry, but also, because, like Mars, it experiences high levels of ultraviolet radiation, due to its altitude and atmospheric transparency (Wettergreen and Cabrol 2005). Just as deserts are used for research that helps to send vehicles and sensors to explore distant planets, meteors arrive on earth from outer space; here deserts play a role too, serving as a repository of space debris and meteors reaching the planet's surface and remaining there as meteorites, wellpreserved due to the slow rate of desert rock erosion. Indeed, most collected meteorites have come from deserts, though many are now also collected in Greenland and Antarctica.

Unlike the use of deserts for testing technologies for space exploration and for detecting meteorites, astronomical observations can theoretically be conducted in any environment, but conducting them in deserts is advantageous. This is because the background "noise" relative to the "signal" emitted by faint celestial sources is minimized in deserts, except where and when dust storms are often generated. This is because, beside the obvious low cloud cover, deserts minimize light pollution from human settlements, atmospheric water vapour, and air turbulence close to the telescope. It is easy to find desert sites where flat, treeless areas reduce the turbulence of airflow and in which urban encroachment is highly unlikely. Indeed, some of the largest and most expensive astronomical instruments of the international astronomical community are placed on desert mountain tops, where also the layers of atmosphere present between the telescope and any celestial object are minimized, such as, for example, the Very Large Telescope array (VLT) of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) on Cerro Paranal in the Atacama high desert of Chile, the Sutherland site in the Karoo of South Africa where the SALT telescope started operations in 2005, and other observatories currently being planned for other desert sites.


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