NASA’s Chemical Laptop Could Spot Life On Mars

Size comparison between the Chemical Laptop, middle, and a regular laptop. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Star Trek's tricorders are becoming a reality. Sort of. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California has unveiled a fully-fledged, on-the-go laboratory about the size of a shoebox called the “Chemical Laptop” that is designed to detect the building blocks of life on another world such as Mars.

Don't be entirely fooled by the name, though. The Chemical Laptop is not a personal computer, but rather it is essentially a mini laboratory, a suite of instruments that could be used on another world by a rover or even a human. It is able to perform detailed analysis of samples, and the team behind it hopes it could be used to find traces of life.

"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 device, in a statement. "As on a regular laptop, we have different apps for different analyses like amino acids and fatty acids."

The device is capable of analyzing the signatures of various biological molecules, notably amino acids and fatty acids. It uses liquid samples for its analysis, which are put in a test-tube with liquid water and then heated to 100°C (210°F). The sample then flows into a microchip, where it is mixed with different dyes, so that the fatty acids and amino acids can be separated from one another. A detection laser is then used to work out the components of the sample.

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and they are essential for life. Each amino acid comes in two varieties: left-handed and right-handed. Both have the same chemical formula, but the left-handed version is the mirrored version of the right-handed one. Life on Earth uses only left-handed amino acids, a standard that was adopted very early in life’s history on our planet. Other life forms might prefer either right or left, so scientists are hoping to see an excess either way as evidence for life. If the samples analyzed show a 50-50 mixture, it would be an indication that they weren’t formed by life forms.

The instrument was taken out of the lab and given a field test on Earth last year, having been placed on top of a rover and left to explore the JPL’s MarsYard. Now it just needs to be given a mission to space.

"This was the first time we showed the instrument works outside of the laboratory setting," said Mora. "This is the first step toward demonstrating a totally portable and automated instrument that can operate in the field."

Mora is currently working on improving the sensitivity of the Chemical Laptop, which can detect life molecules as low as a few parts per trillion. If this technology is sent on a future space mission, it would be the most sensitive life-searching device ever to leave Earth.  

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