For years, scientists have been looking for signs of life on other planets by tracing organic matter such as carbon. Scientists from the California Institute of Technology and Leiden Measurement Technology LLC developed a device that could detect potential signs of life in space.

Their findings have been published in the journal Analytical Chemistry. The device contains a microchip electrophoresis analyzer that could be added to a planetary rover on missions analyzing soil on moons and planets that may have traces of life or organic biosignatures.

Experts already have several candidates of moons and planets that may have been ocean worlds, such as Jupiter's moon, Europa. NASA researchers have previously discovered a substance that resembled salt, suggesting that the moon's oceans contained high concentrations of chloride.

Scientists have also looked at exoplanets that may be habitable or planets outside the Solar System. So far, all the discoveries that may lead to extraterrestrial life were from signatures picked up by telescopes and satellites that hunt for exoplanets, stars, moons, and other cosmic bodies.

In 2012, NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity analyzed Martian soil for the first time but was limited in analyzing some of the organic molecules. Also, techniques such as laser-induced fluorescence (LIF) detection and microchip electrophoresis (ME)-based separations were only partially automated and were developed to be used by scientists on Earth.

Fully Automated System

The new device developed by Peter Willis and the rest of the team is a fully automated microchip powered by batteries. The ME-LIF instrument can collect a sample, then label, separate, and detect organic molecules while attached to a rover in space.

The first microchip or the electrophoresis microchip can process samples from other worlds by separating compounds. The second microchip processes and labels liquid samples.

The device also contains a laser-induced fluorescence detection system. The microchips contain a series of access valves in which samples and liquid flow in and out by automated sequences.

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Identifying Signs of Life

When the team had fully optimized the new device, they conducted a test run in the Atacama Desert, Chile, as a Mars mission simulation. They paired the device with a portable water extractor on a rover system.

The simulation was designed for the rover to drill into the soil to collect samples. Next, the extractor added water to the soil samples, which were heated so that compounds could be extracted and analyzed.

The device was able to detect and identify amino acids like glycine and serine in soil samples from three drilling locations in the desert. The researchers also noted that the device had a higher sensitivity in detecting signs of life compared to previous methods. "This system contains all the necessary hardware and software interfaces for end-to-end functionality," wrote the authors.

Upcoming missions include NASA's Artemis mission to the Moon by 2024, specifically the lunar south pole region. This year, China, U.A.E., and the U.S. have already launched Mars rovers to look for evidence of life on the Red Planet by early 2021.

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