To push its search for extraterrestrial life, NASA has developed a new spectroscopy instrument designed to detect compounds and minerals associated with biological activity more quickly and with greater sensitivity than previous instruments.
Although no evidence of life outside of Earth has yet been found, looking for evidence of present or past life on other planets continues to be an important part of the NASA Planetary Exploration Program.
Now researchers at the American Space agency’s Langley Research Center and the University of Hawaii developed the new instrument. The new system, detailed in the journal Applied Optics, improves on an analytical technique known as micro Raman spectroscopy.
This technique uses the interaction between laser light and a sample to provide chemical composition information on a microscopic scale. It can detect organic compounds such as the amino acids found in living things and identify minerals formed by biochemical processes on Earth that might indicate life on other planets, the study noted.
“Our instrument is one of the most advanced Raman spectrometers ever developed,” said M Nurul Abedin of NASA Langley Research Center who led the research team. “It overcomes some of the key limitations of traditional micro Raman instruments and is designed to serve as an ideal instrument for future missions that use rovers or landers to explore the surface of Mars or Jupiter’s icy Europa moon.”
While accentuating that size and weight were important to consider when designing the SUCR instrument for space exploration, Abedin said. “We had to make sure the instrument was very small and light so that it could travel aboard a small, fuel-efficient spaceship that would make the nine-month journey to Mars or the six-year journey to Europa.”
“The instrument must also work with other instruments aboard a rover or lander and be unaffected by the harsh radiation conditions found on other planets,” Abedin added. "The limitations of current systems would significantly lower the number of samples and amount of information that could be gained from a mission to Mars."
The researchers now plan to test the SUCR instrument to other planetary environments. Thereafter they will begin the validation process to demonstrate that the device would operate accurately even on other planets such as Mars.