Where Earth Is Unearthly: Exotic Places That Resemble Alien Planets as presented by: Discover Magazine

Visiting other planets is a dream that most of us alive today will have to experience vicariously through probes like the plucky NASA Mars rovers, which have sent a thousand photo albums' worth of snapshots back to Earth. But here's what most people don't realize: you can get a feel for visiting other worlds just by going to certain places on our own planet. Another extreme, but surprisingly lively, environment can be found in Antarctica's Dry Valleys, which are some of the most inhospitable places on Earth: temperatures have fallen as low as -90 degrees Fahrenheit, and winds can blow up to 200 mph. They still host hardy organisms like lichens, mosses, and nematodes that can survive the brutal conditions. Scientists believe that, like the lifeless Atacama, these valleys resemble the environment on Mars; studying how creatures nevertheless manage to survive there could give insight into how life might exist on the Red Planet. Engineering projects intended for interplanetary travel, like this six-legged rover meant to carry heavy loads across the surface of a distant moon or planet, can also be found gallivanting across Earth's deserts. The desert outside Flagstaff, Arizona, was the proving grounds for this rover, called ATHLETE--All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer--which someday might transport living quarters for astronauts. Deserts are not the only otherwordly places on Earth. Astronauts can train for space missions in underwater environments like the enormous Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, located in NASA's Johnson Space Center. But these huge bathtubs do not always accurately simulate the trials of space missions: for instance, astronauts can't live in modules at the bottom of these tubs for days on end. That's when NASA turns to the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory. Located 60 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean near Key Largo, it lets spacewalkers work with support crews and a mission control. These particular astronauts are participating in NEEMO 15, the latest NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations voyage; they are helping NASA determine the best way to send a manned crew to an asteroid.

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