NASA developing chemical laptop for easier alien life detection


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.