As NASA plans a new generation of robotic missions to explore the solar system, scientists are trying to figure out how to detect possible alien life. One of the most promising approaches is a so-called “chemical laptop” being developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This self-contained instrument has roughly the same footprint as a conventional laptop, but inside is everything you need to detect life on another planet.
NASA likens the chemical laptop to a Star Trek tricorder in that it’s a “miniaturized on-the-go laboratory.” One vital difference, though, is that the laptop needs to physically interact with a sample of water or ice. The team was conscious of how tough it might be to get a pure sample of water or ice on a planet like Mars (although it does have water), so the chemical laptop operates a bit like an espresso machine.
When the sample is collected by whatever rover or robot NASA sends out there, it’s placed in a glass tube and boiled. The water comes out along with the organic molecules for analysis by the instrument. It has to be much thicker than a regular laptop to accommodate all the tools. The extracted water is fed into the instrument and mixed with a fluorescent dye. Inside the laptop is a microchip capable of separating out amino acids and fatty acids — this is what the chemical laptop is looking for. The molecules then pass through a laser that counts them up.
So, why go searching for these specific molecules? The chemical laptop is looking for a set of compounds essential to life as we know it. Cell membranes are composed of fatty acids (lipids), and proteins are made up of amino acids. If you find both together in substantial quantities, it could point to life.
The chemical laptop is going deeper than just detecting the presence of amino acids. It’s looking for the mixture of left-handed and right-handed amino acids. Left and right-handed molecules have the same structure, but are mirror images of each other (called chirality). Life on Earth evolved to use only left-handed amino acids, but perhaps life elsewhere is based on right-handed ones. Scientists speculate that a 50-50 mixture of left and right amino acids would most likely not be of biological origin, but if the sample is composed of mostly one or the other, that could indicate living organisms aggregated those molecules in their proteins.
So far, JPL has tested the laptops in the Mars Yard it has on site, but an upcoming test in the Atacama Desert of Chile will put it through more rigorous testing in a Mars-like environment. Mars is the most likely first target for the chemical laptop, but it could also make the trip to destinations like Enceladus and Europa someday to melt some snow.
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