Astronomers design a small laser device that can help detect signs of life on other distant planets

A team led by the University of Maryland (United States) has developed a new instrument specifically adapted to the needs of NASA space missions consisting of a small laser device that can help detect signs of life on other planets, as published in the magazine ‘Nature Astronomy’.

As space missions delve deeper into the outer solar system, the need for more compact, accurate, and resource-saving analytical tools becomes ever more pressing, especially in the search for extraterrestrial life and habitable planets or moons. .

The new mini laser analyzer is significantly smaller and consumes fewer resources than its predecessors, all without compromising the quality of its ability to analyze samples of planetary material and possible biological activity in situ, its developers say.

The instrument, which weighs only about 7 kilograms and is a small-scale combination of two important tools for detecting signs of life and identifying the composition of materials: a pulsed ultraviolet laser that removes small amounts of material from a planetary sample, and an analyzer. ‘Orbitrap’ that provides high-resolution data on the chemistry of the materials examined.

“The Orbitrap was originally built for commercial use,” explains Ricardo Arévalo, lead author of the article and associate professor of Geology at UMD. “They can be found in laboratories of the pharmaceutical, medical and proteomic industries. The one in my own laboratory It weighs just under 400 pounds, so they’re pretty big, and it took us eight years to build a prototype that could be used efficiently in space:significantly smaller and with fewer resources, but still capable of cutting-edge science,” he notes.

Thus, the team’s new apparatus reduces the size of the original ‘Orbitrap’ and combines it with laser desorption mass spectrometry (LDMS), techniques that have not yet been applied in an extraterrestrial planetary environment. According to Arévalo, the new device offers the same advantages as its larger predecessors, but is optimized for space exploration and in situ analysis of planetary material.

Due to its low mass and minimal power requirements, the ‘LDMS Orbitrap’ mini-instrument can be easily stowed and maintained on space mission payloads. The instrument’s analyzes of a planetary surface or substance are also much less intrusive and therefore much less likely to contaminate or damage a sample than many current methods that attempt to identify unknown compounds.

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

The laser component of the mini ‘LDMS Orbitrap’ also allows researchers to access larger and more complex compounds that are more likely to be associated with biology. Smaller organic compounds, like amino acids, for example, are more ambiguous signatures of life forms. “Amino acids can be produced abiotically, which means they are not necessarily proof of life.