This fall, NASA scientists revealed evidence of present-day liquid water on Mars, a major finding supplying evidence of the existence on Mars of the ingredients necessary for the creation of organic life. Now, they're looking for something much harder to discern: evidence of actual life.
To help in the search for extraterrestrial life, NASA announced this week that it is developing a portable "chemical laptop" at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The chemical laptop is about the size of an old-school Dell, thick enough to make room for the chemical analysis components inside. In a blog post, NASA described the device as a little like the tricorder from "Star Trek" — the laptop ingests samples from alien terrain and analyzes them for amino acids and fatty acids, components critical for life.
The idea here is to create something small and portable, something that could sit atop, say, the Mars Rover and be sent to planets like Mars and Europa in search of life.
Here's what it looks like:
The chemical laptop is battery-powered, and scientists said it can be reprogrammed to perform different functions. One of its neatest tricks is how it takes samples: the laptop relies on liquid to sample, but on planets like Mars, liquid is often in short supply. So the laptop can mix a ground sample with water, and heat the mixture to 212 degrees Fahrenheit so that the molecules in the sample fuse with the water for analysis. A microchip helps to the separate amino acids and fatty acids from one another, and dye allows scientists to see whether either are present when they pass through a detection laser.
There are still a few kinks to work out. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and fatty acids are key parts of cell membranes. But amino acids come in two types, known as left-handed and right-handed, mirror images of one another that contain the same pieces. On Earth, life has evolved to use just left-handed amino acids. On other planets, though, that might not be the case. It can be hard to tell them apart and look for both using a single analysis technique.
Amino acids and fatty acids are also present in non-living materials, so the laptop will have to be sensitive enough to tell the difference. NASA researchers are still working to improve the laptop's sensitivity.
Researchers field tested the chemical laptop at the JPL's Mars Yard last year. Next up, it will be tested at the Atacama Desert in Chile. If it passes the test, we may be one step closer to finding extraterrestrial life.