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NASA developing chemical laptop for easier alien life detection

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Washington: NASA is developing a makeshift miniature laboratory—‘a chemical laptop’—which can detect fatty acids and amino acids in other worlds, and thus would be more easily able to detect evidence of any living form outside earth.

The device, which basically analyses different samples to find materials associated with life, is being worked upon in Pasadena, California’s NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Jessica Creamer, based at JPL as a NASA postdoctoral fellow, said to a news agency, “If this instrument were to be sent to space, it would be the most sensitive device of its kind to leave Earth, and the first to be able to look for both amino acids and fatty acids.”

Fatty acids are the main constituents of a cell membrane while amino acids form proteins. Both these acids are indispensable for life. However, at times non-living sources also hold them.

Researchers hope to send this device, which is much like a ‘tricorder’ from Star Trek, to other planetary bodies such as Mars or Europa.

The ‘chemical laptop’ is more or less the size of an ordinary computing laptop, but has a larger thickness to accommodate the components for chemical analysis. NASA said that the mechanism would require the device to ingest a sample in order to analyse it. In this way, it is different from a tricorder.

A JPL technologist, Fernanda Mora, who is developing the instrument with the project’s principal investigator, Peter Willis, said: “Our device is a chemical analyser that can be reprogrammed like a laptop to perform different functions.”

“As on a regular laptop, we have different apps for different analyses like amino acids and fatty acids,” added Mora.

There are two types of amino acids—left-handed and right-handed—which, though containing the same components, are mirror images of each other.

Theories put forward by scientists say that Earth life evolved in a manner that there are only left-handed amino acids on the planet. But life on other worlds might very well have evolved in a different manner, where right-handed amino acids could also be present.

“If a test found a 50-50 mixture of left-handed and right-handed amino acids, we could conclude that the sample was probably not of biological origin,” said Creamer.

But, to find an excess of either left-handed or right-handed amino acids would be “a golden ticket”, Creamer added. “That would be the best evidence so far that life exists on other planets.”

In case of fatty acids, it is the length of the carbon chain which would indicate to the scientists the type of organisms that are currently present or were present.

The device is battery-operated and perhaps its major drawback is that it requires a liquid sample to analyze, which would be rather difficult to obtain in planetary bodies such as Mars.

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NASA’s Curiosity Rover Captures Images of Martian Dust Storm

The last storm of global magnitude that enveloped Mars was in 2007, five years before Curiosity landed there

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NASA image.
NASA's Curiosity Rover Captures Images of Martian Dust Storm. Pixabay

With NASA engineers yet to make contact with the Opportunity Mars rover due to a massive storm on the Red Planet, scientists are pinning their hopes on learning more about Martian dust storms from images captured by the Curiosity probe.

As of Tuesday morning, the Martian dust storm had grown in size and was officially a “planet-encircling” (or “global”) dust event, NASA said in a statement on Wednesday.

Though Curiosity is on the other side of Mars from Opportunity, dust has steadily increased over it, more than doubling over the weekend, NASA said.

The US space agency said the Curiosity Rover this month used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to snap photos of the intensifying haziness of the surface of Mars caused by the massive dust storm.

For NASA’s human scientists watching from the ground, Curiosity offers an unprecedented window to answer some questions. One of the biggest: Why do some Martian dust storms last for months and grow massive, while others stay small and last only a week?

“We don’t have any good idea,” said Scott Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Mars Rover
Mars Rover, Pixabay

Curiosity, he pointed out, plus a fleet of spacecraft in the orbit of Mars, will allow scientists for the first time to collect a wealth of dust information both from the surface and from space.

The last storm of global magnitude that enveloped Mars was in 2007, five years before Curiosity landed there.

The current storm has starkly increased dust at Gale Crater, where the Curiosity rover is studying the storm’s effects from the surface.

But it poses little risk to the Curiosity rover, said Curiosity’s engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Also Read: NASA Plans To Install An Instrument To Monitor Plant Water Use

However, there was still no signal from the Opportunity rover, although a recent analysis of the rover’s long-term survivability in Mars’ extreme cold suggests Opportunity’s electronics and batteries can stay warm enough to function.

Regardless, the project does not expect to hear from Opportunity until the skies begin to clear over the rover.

The dust storm is comparable in scale to a similar storm observed by Viking I in 1977, but not as big as the 2007 storm that Opportunity previously weathered. (IANS)