A Kiwi scientist has teamed up with an alien-hunting programme for a study taking her to some of the most extreme spots on Earth.

What Associate Professor Barbara Bollard and her colleagues learn in two scorching-hot deserts could tell us more about how life might survive on other planets - and how climate change is transforming our own one.

Bollard, a senior lecturer at AUT's School of Applied Sciences, has been part of a team using drones for stocktakes of "extremophile" organisms living in Africa's Namib Desert, where surface temperatures reached 68C.

Their research, which turned out some innovative new approaches to spatial analysis, caught the attention of scientists working on a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute programme, in similarly hostile conditions in South America's famed Atacama Desert.


They invited Bollard to Nasa's Ames Research Centre in California, where they mapped out a collaboration involving more work at both regions next year.

For scientists hunting for life in the universe, such extreme environments provided a useful analogue to learn how it was that organisms could adapt and survive with little to sustain them.

In the very driest parts of the Atacama, SETI scientists had shown how hardy microbial communities thrived using only water vapour from the atmosphere.

Even before their project in the Namib Desert in 2017, Bollard and AUT colleagues had already toiled in places barely imaginable to most of us.

Camping out in freezing conditions in Antarctica in 2016, her team operated a fixed-wing drone to make aerial scans of protected areas, so the environmental impact of humans could be better understood.

They created this baseline picture using a concept developed earlier in New Zealand, where masses of images collected by drones were pieced together to render high-definition, three-dimensional profiles.

On the ice, the drones were equipped with an array of cameras, including several specially modified to capture different electro-magnetic, or spectral, signatures reflected from the plants below.

Such was the cold that the drones required thermal underwear to keep warm.


In Africa, they encountered the opposite problem when the extreme heat made it nearly impossible to operate.

With a multi-spectral camera mounted on an eight-bladed multi-rotor X8 drone, along with a hand-held hyperspectral instrument on the ground, they were able to characterise the spectral reflectance of one the most unique plant species on the planet, the Welwitschia mirabilis.

The team will return to the Namib next May, before heading on to the Atacama later in the year to work with Nasa-based SETI scientists to fine-tune their methods, and compare the data they gather.

"On this planet, we hope our research will inform global policy makers on the importance of life in extreme desert systems as sentinels of climate change," Bollard said.

"We also hope that ultimately we will develop technology that will be used in future Rover programmes in the ongoing search for life on Mars and other planets."

Working with Nasa wasn't just an obvious career highlight, she said, but something that struck a personal note.

Her father, Waikato-born aeronautical engineer Dr John H Bollard, who died in 2014, worked as a consultant to Nasa and its famed Jet Propulsion Lab throughout the burgeoning years of its space programme.

"My connection to Nasa through my dad and early childhood has made this even more meaningful to me on a deeply personal level," she said.

"While I was recently on campus at Nasa Ames at Moffett Field, I felt as if my dad was with me, inspiring me."

She thought of the next chapter in her own career a logical move.

"This opportunity has arisen out of my drone work in extreme deserts such as the Dry Valleys in Antarctica and the Namib Desert in Namibia, so Mars really is just the next big step in my research journey," she said.

"I am extremely grateful for the brilliant team I work with at AUT and the researchers at SETI who reached out to us and embraced our novel methods with huge enthusiasm."