March 5, 2024

An Otherworldly Landscape: Bolivian Salt Flats – A Natural Laboratory for Mars Research

Photo of Salar de Coipasa and neighboring Salar de Uyuni in the Bolivian Andes recorded on May 7, 2022, by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.
An otherworldly landscape on a plateau in the Andes provides a natural lab for researchers studying Earth and Mars.
This photo of Salar de Coipasa and surrounding Salar de Uyuni in the Bolivian Andes was caught by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Visible from low Earth orbit, the salt flats show stark white colors that contrast with the darker surrounding rock. Different volcanic cones are scattered through the image, such as Cerro Tetivilla, which divides the 2 salt lakes; Wila Pukarani, located within the Coipasa Salt Flat; and Paryani, on the northern edge of Coipasa.
Research Study Significance of Andean Salt Flats
In recent years, Andean salt flats have been the topic of environment and space-based analog studies, serving as a proxy for Earths climate history and the Martian environment. Salt textures tell the story of the landscapes geologic and weather history, while saltwater salt water and hydrated clays underneath the salt crust are of interest to both Earth and Mars researchers.

This photo of Salar de Coipasa and neighboring Salar de Uyuni in the Bolivian Andes was recorded by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Visible from low Earth orbit, the salt flats display plain white hues that contrast with the darker surrounding rock. Various volcanic cones are spread through the image, such as Cerro Tetivilla, which divides the 2 salt lakes; Wila Pukarani, located within the Coipasa Salt Flat; and Paryani, on the northern edge of Coipasa.
For Earth climate researchers, salts are markers of previous paleoenvironments.

For Earth climate scientists, salts are markers of previous paleoenvironments. Layers that include primarily halite (NaCl) and gypsum (CaSO4)– dry salts that are frequently utilized for mining and agriculture– represent durations of dryness on the South American continent. Layers that are more mud-like in consistency, and consist of natural product and microfossils, represent damp durations.
The High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board ESAs Mars Express spacecraft acquired this picture of Aureum Chaos during orbit 456. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
Insights into Martian Environments
For Mars scientists, Uyuni and Coipasa are natural laboratories for studying the Martian environment. Uyunis clays and brines are similar to Martian brines and clays and supply insight into aeolian and fluvial procedures on Mars. Uyunis geology and geochemistry can be seen as analogous to Aureum Chaos (see image above)– a large basin on the Martian surface.
Astronaut photo ISS067-E-36221 was gotten on May 7, 2022, with a Nikon D5 digital electronic camera using a focal length of 140 millimeters. It is offered by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space. The image was taken by a member of the Expedition 67 crew. The image has been cropped and boosted to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take images of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely readily available on the Internet. Caption Amber Turner, JETS Contract at NASA-JSC.