The Salar de Atacama in Chile is an enclosed basin with no drainage outlets. (Salar
is Spanish for “salt flat.”) The salar is located in the southern half
of the Atacama Desert; with no historical or current records of
rainfall in some parts of this desert, it is considered to be one of
the driest places on Earth.
While the grey-brown surface of the salar is flat and desiccated,
mineral-rich brines—water with a high percentage of dissolved salts—are
located below the surface. The subsurface brines of the Salar de
Atacama are particularly rich in lithium salts. Lithium is an essential
component of advanced batteries and medicines.
The brines are pumped to the surface through a network of wells and
into large, shallow evaporation ponds; three such evaporation
facilities are visible in the center of the image. Color variations in
the ponds are due to varying amounts of salts relative to water. The
dry and windy climate enhances evaporation of the water, leaving
concentrated salts behind for extraction of the lithium.
This astronaut photograph illustrates the central portion of the
Salar de Atacama. It is bounded by brown to grey-brown folded and
faulted rock layers of the Cordillera de la Sal to the northwest (image
upper left) and darker bedrock of the Cordón de Lila to the south
(image lower right).
Astronaut photograph ISS022-E-12224
was acquired on December 15, 2009, with a Nikon D2Xs digital camera
fitted with a 180 mm lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth
Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory,
Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 22 crew. The image in this article has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast. Lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program
supports the laboratory to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that
will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make
those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken
by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Caption by William L. Stefanov, NASA-JSC.