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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.

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Scientists Create Map of Wind Circulation in the Upper Atmosphere of Mars

Scientists map winds in Mars' upper atmosphere for first time

The new map of Mars winds helps scientists to better understand the workings of the Martian climate. (Representational image). Pixabay

Using data from NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft, researchers have created the first-ever map of wind circulation in the upper atmosphere of Mars.

The new map of Mars winds helps scientists to better understand the workings of the Martian climate, giving them a more accurate picture of its ancient past and its ongoing evolution.

“The observed global circulation provides critical inputs needed to constrain global atmospheric models,” said Mehdi Benna of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“These are the same models that are used to extrapolate the state of the Martian climate into the distant past,” added Benna in the first paper published in the journal Science.

MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission) celebrated the five-year anniversary of its entrance into orbit around Mars on September 21.

Mission Mars
The winds observed in the Martian upper atmosphere are sometimes similar to what we see in global model simulations. (Representational image). Pixabay

The primary scientific goal of the mission is to study what is left of Mars’ atmosphere to determine how, in the distant past, an ocean-covered and potentially habitable Mars became the dry and desolate place it is today.

“The winds observed in the Martian upper atmosphere are sometimes similar to what we see in global model simulations, but other times can be quite different,” said Kali Roeten of University of Michigan.

“These winds can also be highly variable on the timescale of hours, yet in other cases, are consistent throughout the observation period, said Roeten in the second paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets.

Upper atmospheric winds on Earth have already been mapped in detail.

Winds drive a series of processes in the atmosphere that can affect the propagation of radio waves, which are crucial for communications purposes for those on the surface, and the prediction of paths satellites will take in their orbit around Earth.

Mapping Martian winds, therefore, is a crucial step towards understanding characteristics of extraterrestrial atmospheres beyond what we know about processes on Earth.

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The upper atmospheric winds on both Earth and Mars are in the planets’ respective thermospheres, which are areas where temperature increases with height.

This discovery was the first detection of topography-induced gravity wave ripples in the thermosphere of any planet, even Earth. (IANS)