No, he wasn’t wandering for 40 years, and he didn’t bring along any matza, but David Kohanbash had a mission in the desert.
Kohanbash, a Squirrel Hill resident and senior research programmer at Carnegie Mellon University, spent two weeks in June in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile on the NASA astrobiology operation led by CMU and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI). He and NASA robot “Zoe” were testing life-seeking technology for use on Mars. NASA plans to send a robot similar to Zoe to Mars in 2020.
“We had two big goals,” Kohanbash said. “Testing out new robotics technology and working to make [the existing technology] more mature so that it can be used for an actual Mars mission.”
The Atacama Desert is covered by rocks and sand, and is extremely arid. The desert holds the least life per unit area on the planet, according to Kohanbash. Conditions in the Atacama Desert are closer to Mars than anywhere else on Earth, he explained.
“The idea is if we’re going to try to find life on Mars,” Kohanbash said, “we need to first be able to do it on Earth.”
Past researchers searched for life on the surface of Mars but then realized that life may exist underneath the surface. Going underground shields organisms from the sun’s rays, helps them retain water and avoid other harsh conditions.
“For this project we really wanted to understand the subsurface life,” Kohanbash said. “If we go to Mars, that’s probably where we’d find life — in the subsurface.”
Zoe’s one-meter long drill collected desert subsurface soil samples, which the robot then analyzed. The robot that NASA plans to send to Mars will do the same thing on the Red Planet.
“We’ve never really done planetary subsurface drilling at this level,” Kohanbash said. “Every generation of Mars rovers [is] more evolved, more intelligent and we’re able to determine more things.”
If the search for extraterrestrial life wasn’t difficult enough, Kohanbash, who is an Orthodox Jew, had the unique challenge of finding ways to stay in ordinance with his faith – a difficult task in the middle of the desert.
There is an Orthodox community with a Chabad House and a school in Santiago, Chile’s capital city, Kohanbash said. But that was about 700 miles south of where he and the researchers stayed in the desert.
Being separated from an Orthodox community is one thing, but how did he observe Shabbat in the Chilean desert?
On Shabbat, when everyone else went out to work in the fields, Kohanbash stayed back and spent a “peaceful” day in his sleeping quarters, he said.
Keeping kosher was an even greater challenge.
To keep kosher, Kohanbash brought most of his food from Pittsburgh. “A lot of prepackaged food that did not require refrigeration, lots of other snacks, bread, pita,” he said. Kohanbash ate baked beans in place of cholent on Shabbat.
“The tricky thing,” [about getting the food to the desert] Kohanbash said, “is getting it through all of those airplanes without getting it crushed.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)