Alien-hunting laser could find life on Mars within the next few years: Portable device can search for large organic compounds in small molecules of planetary matter
- Scientists announce a portable laser device that can search for alien life forms
- The team redesigned two tools: a pulsed ultraviolet laser and a scanner
- The laser captures tiny particles of planetary material that can be scanned for biosignatures
- Scientists hope to send the 17-pound laser into space in the next few years
Portable lasers could help find aliens on Mars or Jupiter’s moon Europa by analyzing the chemistry of small planetary materials.
A team led by the University of Maryland announces the NASA-funded device, a scaled-down version of a 400-pound drug-discovery instrument used in laboratories that can be easily stored and maintained on space mission payloads.
The device, which weighs just 17 pounds, uses a pulsed ultraviolet laser to remove small planetary particles from the planetary material, which is then analyzed by Orbitrap for organic compounds.
This innovation is also less invasive, making it less likely to contaminate or damage a sample, and it could be launched into space “within the next few years.”
The laser is a miniature version of a 400-pound scanner used in labs that can be easily stored and maintained on space mission payloads.
Lead author Professor Ricardo Arevalo, from the University of Maryland, said: ‘The Orbitrap was originally built for commercial use.
You can find it in the laboratories of the pharmaceutical, medical and protein industries. The one in my lab is just under 400 pounds – so it’s pretty big.
“It took us eight years to make a prototype that could be used efficiently in space—significantly smaller and less resource-intensive but still capable of cutting-edge science.”
The team’s new tool pairs the Orbitrap with an LDMS (laser absorption mass spectrometer), which can be applied directly to the sample.
The scanning technology has not yet been applied in an extraterrestrial planetary environment.
Arevalo said the device has the same benefits as its larger predecessors but is streamlined for space exploration and in-situ planetary material analysis.
Analyzes of surface or planetary material are also much less intrusive – making contamination or damage much less likely than current methods for identifying unknown compounds.
“The good thing about a laser source is that anything that can be ionized can be analyzed,” Arevalo said.
If we fire our laser beam at an ice sample, we should be able to determine the composition of the ice and see biosignatures in it.
This instrument has high mass accuracy and precision so that any molecular or chemical compositions in the sample become more identifiable.
The laser also allows researchers to access larger and more complex compounds that are likely to be associated with biology.
Smaller organic compounds like amino acids, for example, are more mysterious signals of life forms.
“Amino acids can be produced abiotically, which means they are not necessarily evidence of life,” Arevalo said.
Meteorites, many of which are full of amino acids, can crash into the planet’s surface and carry non-vital organic matter to the surface.
We now know that larger and more complex molecules, such as proteins, are more likely to have originated in, or associated with, living systems.
“Lasers allow us to study larger, more complex organic materials that can reflect higher-resolution biosignatures than smaller, simpler compounds.”
Scientists plan to send the laser into space in the next few years – and it could go to Mars to search for alien life forms
The miniaturized LDMS Orbitrap system will provide much-needed insight and flexibility for future projects in the outer solar system.
These include targets focused on life detection, such as the Enceladus Orbilander, and exploration of the lunar surface, such as NASA’s Artemis program.
Arevalo and his colleagues hope to send the device into space and deploy it to a planetary target of interest within the next few years.
“I view this prototype as an explorer for other future LDMS and Orbitrap-based tools,” said Arevalo.
“Our miniature Orbitrap LDMS instrument has the potential to improve the way we currently study the geochemistry or astrobiology of a planet’s surface.”