An Orbitrap cell

An Orbitrap cell. (Image courtesy of Ricardo Arevalo)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — A laser device that can detect signs of alien life on faraway worlds has been developed by scientists. The miniaturized machine has been tailored for use in NASA space missions and it could revolutionize the search for extraterrestrial life.

The device is significantly smaller and more resource-efficient than its predecessors, without compromising analysis of planetary samples and biological activity onsite, according to a team from the University of Maryland. Weighing roughly 17 pounds, the instrument is a scaled-down combination of two tools. The pulsed ultraviolet laser removes small amounts of material. A scanner dubbed “Orbitrap” then delivers high-resolution data about their chemistry.

“The Orbitrap was originally built for commercial use,” says lead author Professor Ricardo Arevalo in a statement.

“You can find them in the labs of pharmaceutical, medical and proteomic industries. The one in my own lab is just under 400 pounds – so they’re quite large. 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.”

Laser scans do less damage to alien worlds

The team’s new gadget shrinks down the original Orbitrap while pairing it with LDMS (laser desorption mass spectrometry). The scanning technique has yet to be applied in an extraterrestrial planetary environment.

Prof. Arevalo adds that the device boasts the same benefits as its larger predecessors but is streamlined for future space exploration missions and journeys to other planets. Thanks to its diminutive mass and minimal power requirements, the mini Orbitrap LDMS instrument can be easily stowed away and maintained on a space probe’s payload.

Analyses of a planetary surface or substance are also far less intrusive, making contamination or damage much less likely than current methods to identify unknown compounds.

“The good thing about a laser source is anything that can be ionized can be analyzed,” Prof. Arevalo continues. “If we shoot our laser beam at an ice sample we should be able to characterize the composition of the ice and see biosignatures in it. This tool has such a high mass resolution and accuracy that any molecular or chemical structures in a sample become much more identifiable.”

The laser also allows researchers access to larger, more complex compounds that are more likely to be associated with life. Smaller organic compounds like amino acids, for example, are more ambiguous signatures of living organisms.

“Amino acids can be produced abiotically, meaning that they’re not necessarily proof of life,” the researcher says.

“Meteorites, many of which are chock full of amino acids, can crash onto a planet’s surface and deliver abiotic organics to the surface. We know now that larger and more complex molecules, like proteins, are more likely to have been created by or associated with living systems. The laser lets us study larger and more complex organics that can reflect higher fidelity biosignatures than smaller, simpler compounds.”

Upcoming missions could carry this scanner to space

The mini LDMS Orbitrap will offer much-needed insight and flexibility for future ventures into the outer solar system. These include those focused on life detection objectives such as the Enceladus Orbilander and exploration of the lunar surface like the NASA Artemis Program.

Prof. Arevalo and the team hope to send the device into space and deploy it on a planetary target of interest within the next few years.

“I view this prototype as a pathfinder for other future LDMS and Orbitrap-based instruments,” Prof. Arevalo concludes. “Our mini Orbitrap LDMS instrument has the potential to significantly enhance the way we currently study the geochemistry or astrobiology of a planetary surface.”

The device is described in the journal Nature Astronomy.

South Weset News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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