A newly developed laser instrument will help NASA search distant planets and moons for signs of extraterrestrial life, researchers say.
The high-tech tool, developed for NASA by researchers at the University of Maryland, is light at only about 17 pounds, according to a study published Jan. 16 in the journal Nature and an accompanying study. It can be carried with you for deep space exploration. Press Releases.
The tool consists of two main parts, the researchers said: an ultraviolet laser used to ablate samples from the planet’s surface, and an ion analyzer that generates detailed information about the chemical makeup of the material.
The analyzer, which is 100 times more powerful than similar technology deployed on space missions, is designed to detect traces of organic matter such as trace fossils from very small surface samples, the researchers said. It is also relatively unobtrusive, reducing the risk of sample contamination.
“It took us eight years to create a prototype that could be effectively used in space — much smaller, It’s also much less resource-intensive, but still enables cutting-edge science,” the release said.
The laser, which produces more than three times the power of the laser on the ExoMars detector, will allow NASA to examine larger molecules that are more likely to be byproducts of living systems, the researchers said. So instead of studying small substances like amino acids that don’t necessarily represent life, the device will help study more complex compounds like proteins.
The new laser instrument “has the potential to significantly enhance the way we currently study the geochemistry or astrobiology of planetary surfaces,” added Arevalo.
The researchers expect the new technique to be deployed to deep space sometime in the next few years.
According to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Enceladus, a small moon orbiting Saturn, is considered a prime target for such life-finding missions. The warm ocean that flows beneath its surface may contain a variety of biomarkers that NASA’s instruments can easily access.
The recent discovery of biomarkers on the surface of various celestial bodies has aroused the interest of researchers worldwide.
In 2017, a molecule thought to represent life was found on a comet, according to the European Space Agency. Additionally, fungal biomarkers could still be detected on Martian rocks even after they were exposed to low-orbit conditions for more than a year, according to a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Astrobiology.
However, the compounds considered as biomarkers are not set in stone. Oxygen was once thought to be an “important biomarker for life on exoplanets,” but research published in Scientific Reports in 2015 called that assumption into question.