The Atacama Desert is a good place for astronomy. There usually aren't clouds, and there is almost no light pollution. This picture shows the La Silla Observatory. There are a bunch of domes with telescopes inside in this picture.
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy of the European Southern Observatory, photograph by C. Madsen.

Life in the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the driest places on Earth. Some plants, animals, and microbes manage to survive there, though. People live and work in the Atacama Desert, too.

Places like the Atacama, where life struggles to get by, are called extreme environments. How can anything live in such a dry desert? In some places, living things get moisture from fog that rolls in off the Pacific Ocean. Some types of algae, lichens, and cacti get water this way. Some types of microbes live under rocks or even in tiny spaces within rocks. These "homes" protect the microbes from the heat and dryness.

Why would people live or work in a desert like the Atacama? There has been a lot of mining over the years in the Atacama. People mined silver there in the 16th-18th centuries. Today there are some very large copper mines in the desert. For many years, people mined a chemical called sodium nitrate in the Atacama. It was used to make fertilizers and explosives. Bolivia, Peru, and Chile even fought a war (called the War of the Pacific) in the late 1800s over the valuable nitrate deposits! There are several cities along the Pacific Ocean near the Atacama Desert. They are ports that ship the mining products to other places.

Some of the people who live in the Atacama have a strange way of getting water. There is a village in northern Chile called Chungungo. People who live there use nets to "harvest" water from thick fog banks that roll in off the nearby Pacific Ocean!

It may seem strange, but people do astronomy and space exploration work in the Atacama Desert. There are usually few clouds and almost no light pollution in the Atacama. That makes it good for astronomy. The European Southern Observatory has several large telescopes in Chile. The extreme dryness of the Atacama is similar to the surface of the planet Mars. Scientists sometimes test robots and sensors in this desert before sending them to Mars. Since even microbes are rare in the Atacama, it is a good place to test instruments that will be used to search for life on other worlds. Finally, many meteorites have been found in this desert.

Last modified September 26, 2008 by Randy Russell.

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