The puzzle whether life existed on Mars is something that has baffled researchers since the coming of the age of space travel. Numerous probes have been sent to the red planet, and we have reached tantalizingly close to declaring that life could have existed on the planet in the past. In a bid to find life outside Earth, NASA is perfecting a chemical laptop – a miniaturized lab that can detect amino acids and fatty acids in other worlds.
The miniaturized lab is being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California and it can detect materials that are essential of life like amino acids and fatty acids.
Jessica Creamer, a ‘NASA postdoctoral fellow’, based at JPL explained that if the instrument was sent into space, it will be the most sensitive instrument ever to go into space and could sniff out life-essential molecules. The researchers plan to send the laboratory to other planetary bodies such as Mars or Europa.
The instrument is the size of a regular laptop, but thicker to conduct complex operations like chemical analysis of any sample. The device ingests the sample before it can analyze the different components and separates and identifies molecules like amino acids and fatty acids that are crucial for life.
Fernanda Mora, a technologist, added that the chemical analyzer can be reprogrammed much akin to a laptop to perform different functions. Just like different apps on a laptop performing different functions, the instrument has apps for different analysis like amino acids and fatty acids.
Both Amino Acids and Fatty Acids are important components of life. Amino acids are components of proteins that are considered as building blocks in any organism while fatty acids are essential components of the cell membrane.
Amino acids occur in nature in two types – Laevo of left and Dextro or right handed. Both are mirror images of one another. Scientist’s hypothesized that life on earth evolved using left-handed amino acids.
There is a possibility that life on other worlds might use the right-handed kind. If any sample is obtained and contains a 50-50 mixture of left and right amino acids, it can be deduced that the sample is not of biological origin. Any excess of either of the two amino acids means the sample is of biological origin.