Marin Headlands
Panoche Valley


Success in the Atacama Desert, May 31st to June 16th 2005

On May 31st 2005, teams from UC Berkeley, JPL, Scripps, the Netherlands and NASA-Ames left the US for Chile. Approximately 20 participants, with varied research tasks and goals, arrived in the Atacama Desert on June 1. The goal of the joint UC Berkeley/JPL/Scripps/Netherlands team was to test the Mars Astrobiology Probe components on the arid soils found in the region. In addition to the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA), the portable CE instrument built at UC Berkeley, the Mars Organic Detector (MOD), a sublimation instrument designed and built at JPL/Scripps, the team also tested a portable sub-critical water extractor (SCWE) as an alternate method of extracting the amines and amino acids from the soils prior to CE analysis.

The equipment was flown to Chile in large action packers. It arrived safely in Antofagasta and was driven out to the site using local transport.

Over a 2-week period, the team assembled the lab at the field station, tested the instruments on soil standards brought from Scripps to ensure the equipment was working properly, and then started in on analysis of the Atacama soils.

The lab set-up at Yungay Station. Alison Skelley, Andrew Aubrey, Pascale Ehrenfreund and Peter Willis. The SCWE is in the foreground.


Peter Willis and Andrew Aubrey assembling the MOD and SCWE


The MOA on the right and the SCWE on the left.

A hill next to the Rock Garden was chosen for its pristine state and ~ 50 samples were taken from the hill, covering the summit and different faces, as wells as different depths at each site.

Pascale Ehrenfreund, Alison Skelley and Andrew Aubrey walking the site to discuss sampling locations


Alison Skelley collecting one of the samples at the Rock Garden Site.






Richard Mathies approaching the site in preparation for sampling.

This hill was mapped using differential GPS technology in order to provide a clear understanding of the location of each site relative to the overall topography.

Justine Owen (UC Berkeley) with the differential GPS mapping equipment.

In addition to these soil samples, the Soil Pit and Flat Top Hill were also sampled to provide further variety in the location and type of soil analyzed.

The pristine topsoils of Flat Top Hill (located about 2 hours south of the research station).

The view from Flat Top Hill

During the field test, soil samples extracted by the SCWE were run directly by the CE system prior to concentration, and low levels of amines and amino acids were detected. The SCWE extracts were also concentrated prior to injection in the CE instrument, and the samples analyzed indicated levels of amines and amino acids above the blank. In addition, both raw soil samples as well as SCWE extracts were processed by MOD. The soil samples collected are among some of the most barren soils on Earth, and the instrumentation brought to the Atacama was able to demonstrate a complete end-to-end analysis with successful detection of organic molecules.

The samples collected are being further analyzed back at UC Berkeley, Scripps and JPL. A full report of the field test results will be submitted for publication.




Click on picture for enlarged version

9_x aa_system 13

Chiral resolution of amino acids is
achieved through including a
cyclodextrin in running buffer

Schematic of the MicroCE instrument,
along with microfabricated device

Portable amino acid analysis instrument

6 5 mars_event_cal
Integration of MOD and th
MicroCE instrument to for MOA
Field testing of instrumentation
in the Atacama Desert, Chile
Mars Event Calendar
From Feb. 14 to 22, Alison Skelley, Frank Grunthaner and a team from JPL/Nasa-Ames performed field tests in the Atacama Desert, Chile. MOD was shipped from JPL and set up at the desert research station (Yunguy Station). The instrument prepared several soil samples for CE analysis which were shipped back to Berkeley to run on the MicroCE system.
Antofagasta Argetina Frank

City of Antofagasta,
on the coast of Chile

Mining cemetery
in the Atacama Desert

Frank Grunthaner on the Satellite
phone talking to JPL

MOD Rock_garden Rock_garden2

Pascale Ehrenfreund, Frank Grunthaner,
and Alison Skelley with MOD

The Rock Garden – one of the soil sampling sites in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Soil sampling at the Rock garden.
Ruins of the city of Yunguy
in the background




Soil sampling at the Rock Garden, plains of the Atacama Desert in the background

Rock Garden site and our trusty
4-wheel drive transportation

The Soil Pit – another soil sampling site
in the Atacama Desert




Soil pit site at sunset

Yunguy Station: The field research station
in the Atacama, Yunguy Station

Lab room in Yunguy station
with MOD on the right




Wall of fame – signatures of all the visiting scientists who have performed field research out of Yunguy station


Field Testing in Marin Headlands

The Micro CE device was tested in the Marin Headlands on March 4th , 2004. The purpose of
the field test was to first demonstrate that the device would work in the field, from sipping a sample to performing CE analysis, and second to complete an end-to-end field analysis of soil samples prepared in Chile. These samples were sublimed by MOD during the Atacama field test. Analysis was completed in the Headlands by pumping buffer onto the disk and then directing sample to the separation.

Fieldtest005 Fieldtest016 Fieldtest033

Alison and Jim performing a first test of the device outside of the College of Chemistry

Pumping of buffer out of sipper Pumping out to MOD disk, Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco in the background
Fieldtest034 Fieldtest038  
Alison field testing the device in the Headlands Jim field testing the device in the Headlands  


Field Testing in Panoche Valley, CA

On May 14th, 2004, teams from UC Berkeley, JPL, Scripps, NASA-Ames and the Netherlands gathered in Panoche Valley, CA for a complete sample-to-result field test of the MOD-MOA instrument. Panoche Valley in central California was chosen for its high abundance of a sulfate-rich mineral called jarosite. This mineral is only found in locations where water once existed, and it has recently been detected on Mars by the rover Opportunity, indicating that Mars was once wet (link to Science article by Kerr under news/current events).

The goal was to establish whether amino acids and amines could be isolated from jarosite and analyzed by our system. Jarosite samples were ground and deposited into MOD, sublimed onto the coldfinger coated with fluorescamine, and them MOA sipped samples from that surface to analyze. Several amino acids were successfully identified and quantified, and the results were further confirmed by later studies in the laboratory. This was the first time MOD and MOA had shared a bench, and the result was a very successful filed test by all accounts. The results of the field test, along with the characterization of the MOA, have been submitted to PNAS. A brief summary of the results can be found here: (link to field test results)

1 2 3
The MOD-MOA team at the Panoche Valley field test site. Frank Grunthaner and Alison Skelley sitting down on the job Pascale Ehrenfreund and Jim Scherer discussing strategy in the RV
4 5 6
Hiking high above the site to collect jarosite and gypsum samples An overview of the Panoche Valley site, with the RV in the distance Soil samples were collected by digging below the surface to find pure jarosite veins.
7 8 9
In some cases pure jarosite veins were found, in others jarosite was precipitated on sandstone layers, as shown here. Once the samples were obtained they were ground up in preparation for sublimation. A close-up of the grinding process
90 91 92
Frank Grunthaner examines one of the fluorescamine-coated cold fingers in preparation for sublimation. Alison Skelley preparing the MOA system for the sample inside the RV A close-up of the MOA sipping off the MOD sublimation disk
93 93b 94
Excavation of pure jarosite veins
at a second site
Richard Mathies digging at the second site Jim Scherer, Frank Grunthaner and Alison Skelley excavating at the second site
95 96 97
Frank Grunthaner and Alison Skelley discussing what to sample The jarosite was found in pure veins at the second site. The slightly reddish-yellow vein can be seen in the background. Large chunks of jarosite were collected
from this site, and as a result the material
was very pure.



© Copyright 2004, Richard A. Mathies

Website Design: Jung Design
Site Maintained by: Spitfire Graphics