Wednesday January 16, 2019
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NASA developing chemical laptop for easier alien life detection

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source: www.engadget.com

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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China Exchanged Data With NASA On Its Recent Mission To Moon

The country has also said that it will welcome scientists and astronauts from around the world to make use of its space station, which is slated for completion by 2022.

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Wu Yanhua, deputy director of the national space agency, speaks during a press conference held in Beijing, China, Jan. 14, 2019. VOA

China exchanged data with NASA on its recent mission to land a Chinese spacecraft on the far side of the moon, the Chinese space agency said Monday, in what was reportedly the first such collaboration since an American law banned joint space projects with China that do not have prior congressional approval.

The space agency’s deputy director, Wu Yanhua, said NASA shared information about its lunar orbiter satellite in hopes of monitoring the landing of the Chang’e 4 spacecraft, which made China the first country to land on the far side of the moon earlier this month.

China in turn shared the time and coordinates of Chang’e 4’s scheduled landing, Wu told reporters during a briefing on the lunar mission. He added that while NASA’s satellite did not catch the precise moment of landing, it took photographs of the area afterward.

The state-run China Daily said that was the first such form of cooperation since the 2011 U.S. law was enacted.

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The far side of the moon, photographed by the Chang’e-4 lunar probe, is seen in this image provided by China National Space Administration, Jan. 3, 2019. VOA

NASA has not published any statements on the collaboration and could not immediately be reached for comment.

The lunar mission by Chang’e 4 and its rover, Jade Rabbit 2, was a triumph for China’s growing space program, which has been rapidly catching up with those of Russia and the U.S. President Xi Jinping has placed space exploration among the country’s national development priorities and the far side mission offered a chance for China to do something not done before by any other country.

The far side of the moon – the side which faces away from Earth – posed a challenge for scientists because it is beyond radio signals’ reach. China set up a relay satellite in May to receive communication from Chang’e 4.

“In the past, we were always rushing to catch up to the advanced global standards” in space, said Wu Weiren, the chief designer of China’s lunar exploration project.

“There were many things to catch up on, and fewer things in which we could surpass others,” he said. “With the probe of the far side of the moon this time, Chinese people have done very well.”

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This picture taken Jan. 3, 2019, and received, Jan. 4, from the China National Space Administration (CNSA) via CNS shows a robotic lunar rover on the far side of the moon. VOA

Officials at the briefing declined to give specific figures on the costs of the space program.

Wu Yanhua said the Chang’e 4 was originally built as a “backup product” for Chang’e 3. He said the spending needed to refit it for its new objective was akin to repairing a short section of subway line.

Also Read: NASA Telescopes Capture Birth of Black Hole or Neutron Star

Around the end of this year, China plans to launch Chang’e 5, which is to collect and bring back samples from the near side of the moon, the first time that has been done since 1976. Scientists are still researching whether to send Chinese astronauts, Wu said.

The country has also said that it will welcome scientists and astronauts from around the world to make use of its space station, which is slated for completion by 2022. (VOA)