At the Atacama Desert, scientists debate what has been transformed into the futuristic Inca city

On Sept. 14, space officials are to announce an interstellar discovery based on radio signals transmitted from planet outside our solar system. Several years in the making, the event will take place in the remote Atacama Desert. Meanwhile, researchers are gathering information on what the dusty desert, about 1,800 miles north of La Paz, looks like from within.

According to the study published in the scientific journal Nature, over a period of approximately 50 years, the desert’s barren land has been transformed into a scientific and technological hub, a major place to experiment with exoplanets, the systems around stars outside the solar system that scientists need to explain the origins of alien life.

The authors of the study, John Lincoln, a science fiction writer based in the Atacama, and physicists Alberto Tourraci and Pedro Silverio, were shocked to discover the structure they’d created. Many of their beliefs about the evolution of the desert were challenged by the contrast between the barren landscape and the area they’d constructed.

“I’m not sure the meaning of life is as simple as having an Earth-like planet. Maybe it’s just dark energy that is killing us off in the universe,” said Lincoln, who founded the Atacama Land Movement (ALM), a research organization that provides members with grants and funding.

The Atacama’s politics are a hot topic as well. The Latin American country has been the focus of controversy following the death of Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in December and about $2.6 billion in international accusations leveled against her father, Jorge Rafael Fernández, a former military dictator, for human rights violations. It’s a place where scientists trade ideas about exoplanets and where Elon Musk holds classes to study the future of space travel. The country has also been the site of large protests as locals fight over limited water supplies and look for ways to remain solvent, even as the world economy worsens.

Lincoln’s organization has battled in court with energy companies seeking mining claims in the Atacama, arguing that the project represents decades of “intellectual fraud” in a country with huge social, economic and environmental challenges.

In their study, Lincoln and the other researchers presented their suggestions for a new map of the Atacama, which ranges in value from $500 million to $6.7 billion. They propose an area that is no more than 10 square miles wide, but they’ll have to wait until September 14 to find out which panel will green-light the plan.

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