An Orbitrap cell. Credit: Ricardo Arevalo
Topics: Astrobiology, Astronautics, Biology, Laser, NASA, Planetary Science, Space Exploration
As space missions delve deeper into the outer solar system, the need for more compact, resource-conserving, and accurate analytical tools have become increasingly critical—especially as the hunt for extraterrestrial life and habitable planets or moons continues.
A University of Maryland–led team developed a new instrument specifically tailored to the needs of NASA space missions. Their mini laser-sourced analyzer is significantly smaller and more resource efficient than its predecessors—all without compromising the quality of its ability to analyze planetary material samples and potential biological activity onsite. The team's paper on this new device was published in the journal Nature Astronomy on January 16, 2023.
Weighing only about 17 pounds, the instrument is a physically scaled-down combination of two important tools for detecting signs of life and identifying compositions of materials: a pulsed ultraviolet laser that removes small amounts of material from a planetary sample and an Orbitrap analyzer that delivers high-resolution data about the chemistry of the examined materials.
"The Orbitrap was originally built for commercial use," explained Ricardo Arevalo, lead author of the paper and an associate professor of geology at UMD. "You can find them in the labs of pharmaceutical, medical and proteomic industries. The one in my own lab is just under 400 pounds, so they're quite large, and it took us eight years to make a prototype that could be used efficiently in space—significantly smaller and less resource-intensive but still capable of cutting-edge science."
The team's new gadget shrinks down the original Orbitrap while pairing it with laser desorption mass spectrometry (LDMS)—techniques that have yet to be applied in an extraterrestrial planetary environment. The new device boasts the same benefits as its larger predecessors but is streamlined for space exploration and onsite planetary material analysis, according to Arevalo.
Small laser device can help detect signs of life on other planets, University of Maryland, Phys.org.