U.S.A, Jan 30, 2017: NASA scientists have developed a new chemical assay that could aid the search for life on exoplanets by identifying the presence of amino acids, the compounds that make up proteins and are the building blocks of life.
The test uses a liquid-based technique known as capillary electrophoresis to separate a mixture of organic molecules into its components.
It was designed by researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the US specifically to analyse for amino acids, the structural building blocks of all life on Earth.
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The method is 10,000 times more sensitive than current methods employed by spacecraft like NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover, according to researchers.
One of the key advantages of the new way of using capillary electrophoresis is that the process is relatively simple and easy to automate for liquid samples expected on ocean world missions.
It involves combining a liquid sample with a liquid reagent, followed by chemical analysis under conditions determined by the team.
By shining a laser across the mixture – a process known as laser-induced fluorescence detection – specific molecules can be observed moving at different speeds. They get separated based on how quickly they respond to electric fields.
While capillary electrophoresis has been around since the early 1980s, this is the first time it has been tailored specifically to detect extraterrestrial life on an ocean world, said Jessica Creamer, a postdoctoral scholar at JPL.
“Our method improves on previous attempts by increasing the number of amino acids that can be detected in a single run,” Creamer said.
“Additionally, it allows us to detect these amino acids at very low concentrations, even in highly salty samples, with a very simple ‘mix and analyse’ process,” she said.
The researchers used the technique to analyse amino acids present in the salt-rich waters of Mono Lake in California.
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The lake’s exceptionally high alkaline content makes it a challenging habitat for life, and an excellent stand-in for salty waters believed to be on Mars, or the ocean worlds of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa.
The researchers were able to simultaneously analyse 17 different amino acids, which they are calling “the Signature 17 standard.” These amino acids were chosen for study because they are the most commonly found on Earth or elsewhere.
“Using our method, we are able to tell the difference between amino acids that come from non-living sources like meteorites versus amino acids that come from living organisms,” said the project’s principal investigator, Peter Willis of JPL.
The study was published in the journal Analytical Chemistry. (IANS)
Washington, October 12, 2017 : The shortage of plutonium threatens NASA’s future mission to explore deep space, the US government has warned.
The break in production of plutonium 238 (Pu-238) between 1988 and 2015 could result in a bottleneck situation, where there is not enough of this scarce resource to power spacecraft during long-duration missions, Newsweek.com reported this week citing a government report.
NASA has long used radioisotope power systems (RPS) to generate reliable electrical power and heat energy for long-duration space missions, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said.
But given NASA’s current plans for solar system exploration, the supply of this critical resource could be exhausted within the next decade, putting in jeopardy its future missions that would require this fuel, it warned.
RPS can operate where solar panels or batteries would be ineffective or impossible to use, such as in deep space or in shadowed craters, by converting heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) into electricity.
Missions such as Mars Curiousity rover and the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft use radioisotope thermoelectric generators as power source.
The production problems of Pu-238 and subsequent risks to NASA have been known for several years.
The Department of Energy (DOE) and its predecessor agencies have been providing Pu-238 and fabricating RPS for NASA and other federal agencies for more than five decades decades
DOE currently maintains about 35 kgs of Pu-238 isotope designated for NASA missions, about half of which currently meets the power specifications for spaceflight.
However, given NASA’s current plans for solar system exploration, this supply could be exhausted within the next 10 years.
Specifically, NASA plans to use about 3.5 kg of Pu-238 isotope for one RPS to power the Mars 2020 mission, the Government Accountability Office report said.
NASA may also use an additional 10.5 kg of Pu-238 isotope for its New Frontiers #4
mission if three RPS are used.
If DOE’s existing Pu-238 supply is used for these two missions, NASA would be forced to eliminate or delay future missions requiring RPS until DOE produces or acquires more Pu-238, the report said. (IANS)
Washington, October 8, 2017 : After orbiting the Red Planet for 16 years, NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft has captured its first images of the Martian moon Phobos.
The Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera on Mars Odyssey orbiter, launched in 2001, observed Phobos on September 29.
Phobos has an oblong shape with an average diameter of about 22 kilometres.
Cameras on other Mars orbiters have previously taken higher-resolution images of Phobos, but none with the infrared information available from THEMIS.
Observations in multiple bands of thermal-infrared wavelengths can yield information about the mineral composition of the surface, as well as the surface texture, NASA said in a statement this week.
“Although THEMIS has been at Mars for 16 years, this was the first time we have been able to turn the spacecraft around to look at Phobos,” said THEMIS Mission Planner Jonathon Hill of Arizona State University.
The researchers combined visible-wavelength and infrared data to produce an image color-coded for surface temperatures of this moon, which has been considered for a potential future human-mission outpost, NASA said.
“This half-moon view of Phobos was chosen because it allowed us to observe a wide range of temperatures on the surface,” Hill added.
One major question about Phobos and Mars’ even smaller moon, Deimos, is whether they are captured asteroids or bits of Mars knocked into the sky by impact.
The researchers believe that compositional information from THEMIS might help pin down their origin.
Since Odyssey began orbiting the Red Planet in 2001, THEMIS has provided compositional and thermal properties information from all over Mars, but never before imaged either Martian moon.
The September 29 observation was completed to validate that the spacecraft could safely do so, as the start of a possible series of observations of Phobos and Deimos in coming months.
“There is heightened interest in Phobos because of the possibility that future astronauts could perhaps use it as an outpost,” said Odyssey Project Scientist Jeffrey Plaut of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (IANS)
Washington, Oct 6: The Trump administration will direct NASA to land humans on the Moon and establish presence on the lunar surface before sending astronauts to the Red Planet and beyond, US Vice President Mike Pence has said.
Pence made the administration’s intentions known in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, as well as a speech he gave during the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council — a newly resurrected executive group aimed at guiding the US space agenda, The Verge reported on Thursday.
“We will return NASA astronauts to the Moon — not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation, we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” he told reporters at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
Pence made it clear that space is a national priority, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement after the first meeting of the Council.
“The vice president also announced a call for renewed U.S. leadership in space – with a recommendation to the president that NASA help lead and shape the way forward,” Lightfoot said.
“Specifically, NASA has been directed to develop a plan for an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system, returning humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations,” Lightfoot added.
The Council acknowledged the strategic importance of cis-lunar space — the region around the Moon — which will serve as a proving ground for missions to Mars and beyond, Lightfoot added. (IANS)