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)
The Trump administration asked Congress on Monday to increase NASA spending next year by an extra $1.6 billion to accommodate the accelerated goal of returning Americans to the surface of the moon by 2024.
The increased funding request, announced by President Donald Trump on Twitter, comes nearly two months after Vice President Mike Pence declared the objective of shortening by four years NASA’s timeline for putting astronauts back on the moon for the first time since 1972.
The proposed increase would bring NASA’s total spending level for the 2020 fiscal year to $22.6 billion. The bulk of the increase is earmarked for research and development for a human lunar landing system, according to a summary provided by NASA.
“Under my Administration, we are restoring @NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars,” Trump tweeted late on Monday. “I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!” NASA had previously aimed to return crewed spacecraft to the lunar surface by the year 2028, after first putting a “Gateway” station into orbit around the moon by 2024.
The newly accelerated goal – an endeavor likely to cost tens of billions of dollars – comes as NASA has struggled with the help of private partners to resume human space missions from U.S. soil for the first time since the shuttle program ended in 2011.
The U.S. Apollo program, NASA’s forerunner to the effort at returning humans to Earth’s natural satellite, tallied six manned missions to the moon from 1969 to 1972. So far, only two other nations have conducted controlled “soft” landings on the moon – the former Soviet Union and China. But those were with unmanned robot vehicles. (VOA)