NASA’s ‘chemical laptop’ search alien life

NASA’s ‘chemical laptop’ to search for alien life

4:29 AM, 1st December 2015
NASA’s ‘chemical laptop’ to search for alien life
The Chemical Laptop, developed at JPL, analyzes liquid samples and detects amino acids and fatty acids. These are the chemicals that are essential to life.

WASHINGTON, US: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientists have developed a device called “Chemical Laptop” which helps to find life on other planets.

“If this instrument were to be sent to space, it would be the most sensitive device of its kind to leave Earth, and the first to be able to look for both amino acids and fatty acids,” said Jessica Creamer, a NASA postdoctoral fellow based at JPL.

Like a tricorder from ‘Star Trek,’ the Chemical Laptop is a miniaturized on-the-go laboratory, which researchers hope to send one day to another planetary body such as Mars or Europa. It is roughly the size of a regular computing laptop, but much thicker to make room for chemical analysis components inside. But unlike a tricorder, it has to ingest a sample to analyze it.

“Our device is a chemical analyzer that can be reprogrammed like a laptop to perform different functions,” said Fernanda Mora, a JPL technologist who is developing the instrument with JPL’s Peter Willis, the project’s principal investigator. “As on a regular laptop, we have different apps for different analyses like amino acids and fatty acids.”

When the laptop is set to look for fatty acids, scientists are most interested in the length of the acids’ carbon chain. This is an indication of what organisms are or were present. The Chemical Laptop may be able to tell the difference.

Samples obtained on a planetary body such as Mars or elsewhere need to be dissolved in water before they can be analyzed. The Chemical Laptop uses something researchers are likening to an espresso machine to heat up and dissolve the samples in water. Dyes and other chemical additives will be used to help mark molecules in the samples, and anything that's obtained will be analyzed by a laser in the device.

Some of these species will only interact with right-handed amino acids, and some will only interact with the left-handed variety. These additives will change the relative amount of time the left and right-handed amino acids are in the separation channel, allowing scientists to determine the “handedness” of amino acids in the sample.

“This would be the best evidence so far that life exists on other planets. a version of the device has already been demonstrated here on Earth - now it just needs its chance in space,” said Creamer.

The Chemical Laptop technology has applications for Earth, too. It could be used for environmental monitoring - analyzing samples directly in the field, rather than taking them back to a laboratory. Uses for medicine could include testing whether the contents of drugs are legitimate or counterfeit.

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