NASA Develops Super-sensitive Test For Detecting Life On Other Planets

Posted: Jan 27 2017, 11:14pm CST | by , Updated: Jan 27 2017, 11:55pm CST, in News | Latest Science News

NASA Develops New Test for Detecting Life on Other Planets
Mono Lake, California, where JPL scientists tested new methods for detecting chemical signatures. Credit: Mono County Tourism

The method is 10,000 times more sensitive than current methods employed by NASA rovers

For many years, researches have been trying to find whether there’s life beyond our solar system.

At the moment, life on Earth is the only known life in the universe, but many believe we are not alone here. Some form of life is likely existing elsewhere in the universe.

To find extraterrestrial life, be it microbial or intelligent life, researchers require tools capable of detecting signs of life on other planets. While some of these tools already exist, researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have created a new simple chemistry test that can detect biochemical signatures more accurately than any existing method.

The new method is based on capillary electrophoresis – a technique that separates a mixture of organic molecules into its components.

Focused on detecting amino acids or building blocks of life, the test combines a liquid sample collected from extraterrestrial surface with a chemical called liquid reagent. Then, by shining a laser across the mixture, specific molecules can be observed moving at different speed, which will allow researchers to distinguish biosignatures from other alien components.

This relatively simple and easy tool has been around for many decades. But it is the first time that researchers have modified it in a way that it can identify different types of amino acids on an ocean world like Saturn's moon Enceladus and Jupiter's moon Europa.

To test if it works, researchers applied this method on the sample of salt-rich waters of Mono Lake in California and they were able to analyze 17 different amino acids simultaneously. These amino acids which scientists call "the Signature 17 standard" are the most common amino acids found on Earth, making it an ideal tool to search for the signs of life on other planets.

The new tool is 10,000 times more sensitive than current methods employed by any NASA rover today.

“One of NASA's highest-level objectives is the search for life in the universe. Our best chance of finding life is by using powerful liquid-based analyses like this one on ocean worlds,” said the project's principal investigator, Peter Willis of JPL.

“Using our method, we are able to tell the difference between amino acids that come from non-living sources like meteorites versus amino acids that come from living organisms.”

Detecting a biosignature is just a first step to understanding the conditions of an alien world. Each world has its own geology and chemical makeup that may or may not lead to life.

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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