I went to Namibia, specifically the Namib-Naukluft National Park, with a bunch of astrobiologists from all over the world. We stayed at the Gobabeb Research & Training Centre. The scientists I was with literally represented every continent. They came from The USA, England, South Africa, Namibia, Australia, New Zealand, and China among other places. Antarctica was particularly well represented because although nobody actually lives there these scientist’s research frequently takes them there. Some of the people I was with had been to Antarctica many times. The expeditions were part of NASA’s Spaceward Bound Program.
What all of them have in common is that they are interested in how microbes survive in extreme environments like very dry deserts, very cold places, acidic solutions, outer space, etc. This is because if we’re ever going to discover life on Mars we have to know where to look. It certainly isn’t lying out on the surface in plain sight.
Microbes in the Namib desert do quite well living underneath quartz rocks. We call these hypolithic communities (“hypo” = under; “lith”=rock). The rocks act like greenhouse windows, transmitting a little bot if visible light so the microbes can photosynthesize, but blocking the lethal UV radiation and trapping soil moisture. One experiment I did there shows that cyanobacteria under rocks can thrive is as little as 1/10th of 1% of direct African sunlight. We even published a paper about that, and expect to publish more in the years to come:
Warren-Rhodes K. A., McKay C. P., Boyle L. N., Wing M. R., Kiekebusch E. M., Cowan D. A., Stomeo F., Pointing S. B., Kaseke K. F., Eckardt F., Henschel J. R., Anisfeld, A., Seely M. and Rhodes K L. (2013) “Physical ecology of hypolithic communities in the central Namib Desert: The role of fog, rain, rock habitat and light.” Journal of Geophysical Research – Biosciences. Vol. 118, No. 4, pp. 1451-1460. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jgrg.20117/full .
I also have several sets of artificial hypoliths growing there. I paid for my own airfare on these trips, but NASA covered my expenses on the ground. Here is an item about it on NASA’s web site: http://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/living-under-a-rock.html and here is my blog from the field: http://spacewardboundnamib2012.blogspot.com/