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)
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, which has been shrinking for a century and a half, seems to be growing taller as it gets smaller, NASA scientists have found.
The Great Red Spot is a persistent high-pressure region in the atmosphere of Jupiter, producing an anti-cyclonic storm 22 degree south of the planet’s equator.
The findings, published in the Astronomical Journal, indicate that the Great Red Spot recently started to drift westward faster than before. Historically, it’s been assumed that this drift is more or less constant.
The study confirms that the storm has been decreasing in length overall since 1878 and is big enough to accommodate just over one Earth at this point. But the historical record indicates the area of the spot grew temporarily in the 1920s.
“Storms are dynamic, and that’s what we see with the Great Red Spot. It’s constantly changing in size and shape, and its winds shift, as well,” said Amy Simon, an expert in planetary atmospheres at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland.
“There is evidence in the archived observations that the Great Red Spot has grown and shrunk over time,” added Reta Beebe, Professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. “However, the storm is quite small now, and it’s been a long time since it last grew,” Beebe said.
Because the storm has been contracting, the researchers expected to find the already-powerful internal winds becoming even stronger. However, instead of spinning faster, the storm appears to be forced to stretch up. The change in height is small relative to the area that the storm covers, but it’s still noticeable.
Further, the Great Red Spot’s colour is also deepening, becoming intensely orange since 2014, the researchers observed. While the researchers are not sure why that’s happening, it’s possible that the chemicals which colour the storm are being carried higher into the atmosphere as the spot stretches up.
At higher altitudes, the chemicals would be subjected to more UltraViolet radiation and would take on a deeper colour. Once big enough to swallow three Earths with room to spare, the mystery surrounding Great Red Spot seems to deepen as the iconic storm contracts.
Researchers do not know whether the spot will shrink a bit more and then stabilise, or break apart completely. “If the trends we see in the Great Red Spot continue, the next five to 10 years could be very interesting from a dynamical point of view,” the researchers said.
“We could see rapid changes in the storm’s physical appearance and behaviour, and maybe the red spot will end up being not so great after all,” they added. IANS