A newly developed laser instrument will help NASA scour distant planets and moons for signs of alien life, researchers say.
The high-tech tool, developed for NASA by University of Maryland researchers, only weighs about 17 pounds, making it light enough to be brought along on deep space explorations, according to a study published in the journal Nature on Jan. 16 and an accompanying news release.
The tool is made up of two main components: an ultraviolet laser for excising samples from a planet’s surface and an ion analyzer that produces detailed information about the chemical makeup of the materials, researchers said.
The analyzer, which is 100 times more powerful than comparable technologies deployed on space missions, is built to detect traces of organic matter, like microfossils, from very small surface samples, researchers said. It is also relatively unobtrusive, thereby reducing the risk of sample contamination.
“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,” Ricardo Arevalo, co-author of the study, wrote in a news release.
The laser, which generates more than three times the amount of energy of the laser aboard the ExoMars rover, will allow NASA to examine larger molecules that are more likely the byproducts of living systems, researchers said. So, rather than study small materials, like amino acids, which are not necessarily indicative of life, the device will facilitate the study of 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 a planetary surface,” Arevalo added.
Researchers anticipate the new technology will be deployed into deep space at some point in the next few years.
Enceladus, a small moon orbiting Saturn, is considered a prime target for such a life-finding mission, according to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. A warm ocean flowing beneath its surface, which potentially harbors a variety of biomarkers, could easily be accessed by NASA’s instruments.
Biomarkers have been discovered on the surfaces of various celestial bodies in the recent past, intriguing researchers worldwide.
In 2017, a molecule thought to be indicative of life was spotted on a comet, according to the European Space Agency. Additionally, fungal biomarkers were detected on martian rocks even after they’d been in exposed to low orbit conditions for over a year, according to a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Astrobiology.
However, the compounds that are considered biomarkers are not set in stone. Oxygen was once thought to be an “essential biomarker for life on extrasolar planets,” but research published in Scientific Reports in 2015 called that hypothesis into question.