Researchers develop device that can better detect signs of extraterrestrial life
By Virgilio Marin // Sep 22, 2020

A group of researchers has developed a fully automated device that could better detect signs of alien life.


Astronomers have been trying to look for evidence of extraterrestrial life for decades. They typically use detection methods that look for carbon, which is an important component of organic compounds. But current technologies are limited; some devices can’t properly sift through complex samples while others don’t work automatically. The new device addresses these problems.

The researchers, from the California Institute of Technology and Leiden Measurement Technology in California, published a paper about the device in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

New device improves upon previous technologies

Previous missions to Mars used gas chromatography paired with mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to separate and detect compounds. But this technique doesn’t provide a reliable analysis of some molecules, particularly when water, salts and minerals are present in the sample.

Another method, microchip electrophoresis (ME) paired with the laser-induced fluorescence (LIF) technique, is an ideal alternative. This method works by separating molecules in a sample using an electrical field (ME). Then, the LIF system sorts which of those molecules are organic by measuring the levels of light that they emitted.

However, current ME-LIF instruments are only partially automated, which isn’t useful for interplanetary missions. Hence, the team developed a fully automated, portable instrument that runs on batteries. The device is equipped with a LIF system and two microchips – one used for processing and labeling a liquid sample and another for separating compounds.

After optimizing the device, the researchers took it for a simulated Mars mission in the Atacama desert in Chile. They paired the device with a portable subcritical water extractor and installed them in a rover. The extractor added water to the soil samples collected by the rover from four drilling locations. Afterward, the samples were heated for the extraction and analysis of the compounds.

The device was able to detect parts per billion levels of amino acids in soil from three drilling locations. The team said that the device has three times higher sensitivity than GC-MS techniques.

“This system contains all the necessary hardware and software interfaces for end-to-end functionality,” wrote the researchers. They said that more work is needed to finetune the device, but it holds great promise for future missions seeking signs of extraterrestrial life. (Related: Astronomers detect signs of life on Venus.)

NASA’s planned space missions

The device comes along as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) prepares to launch the Artemis mission in 2024.

NASA will be sending astronauts to the Moon using the spacecraft Orion. The team will look for water and other critical resources and investigate the mysteries of the Moon in order to learn more about Earth and the universe. They will also test new technologies and capabilities needed for future explorations to planets, including Mars.

The agency recently launched the Mars 2020 mission, which sent the Perseverance rover to the red planet in order to collect soil samples, among other tasks. These samples are planned to be transported to Earth. If they make it home, they will be the first samples directly retrieved from Martian soil. NASA’s overarching goal is to explore Mars, and Artemis is envisioned to provide headway into that goal.

NASA is also eyeing moons in the outer solar system for future exploration. One of them is Jupiter’s Europa, thought to harbor salty oceans beneath its icy surface. The spacecraft Europa Clipper will search for signs of potential habitability on the moon. has more on devices used to detect signs of extraterrestrial life.

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