Portrait of Nathalie Cabrol

“Nathalie Cabrol was 5 when she saw the first moon landing on television. Pointing at Neil Armstrong, she told her mother that this was what she wanted to do. Even before then, she stared up at the stars in the night sky near her home in the Paris suburbs and knew that questions were there waiting for her.

Cabrol is an explorer, an astrobiologist and a planetary geologist specializing in Mars. She is the director of the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute, the nonprofit organization based in Mountain View, Calif., that seeks to explore, understand and explain the origin of life in the universe. Its work has the glamour of science fiction, but it involves rigorous research and, as Cabrol told me, “people who are passionate enough that they can put themselves into dire straits.” That is what she does, traveling to some of the world’s most extreme and dangerous environments in search of organisms that live in conditions analogous to those on Mars. Cabrol was the chief scientist on the team testing an experimental rover in the Atacama Desert in 2002 and was instrumental in choosing the landing site on Mars for Spirit, the rover that explored the planet from 2004 to 2010; she has dived in volcanic lakes at high altitudes to study the creatures within and has designed and installed an autonomous floating robot on an Andean lake that simulated lakes on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.” 

Text by Helen Macdonald for The New York Times Magazine.

This is the story the Seti’s last mission.  A 26 days, expedition to Chile’s high-altitude deserts to test methods of detecting life on Mars. 

This story is one of four extraordinary journeys published in the New York Times Magazine’s Voyages special issue - 25 March 2018.

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