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Friday, July 1, 2005

New Instrument to Search for Life

 Mars astrobiology probe.
Mars astrobiology probe.
Credit: Alison Skelley/UC Berkeley
Late last month, Alison Skelley and Richard Mathies from UC Berkeley and others from NASA traveled to the Atacama Desert to test the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA). The Atacama Desert is one of the most lifeless places on Earth. However, the MOA was able to detect the presence of amino acids. Even more impressive, is that it was able to distinguish between left and right handed amino acids (its chirality). For some reason, life prefers left-handed amino acids. Scientists feel that this could be an important clue to distinguishing chemical from biological sources for any amino acids found on Mars (in space it seems to be 50-50). "We feel that measuring homochirality - a prevalence of one type of handedness over another - would be absolute proof of life," said Mathies, a professor of chemistry and Skelley's research advisor. "We've shown on Earth, in the most Mars-like environment available, that this instrument is a thousand times better at detecting biomarkers than any instrument put on Mars before." The instrument is scheduled to fly on the ESA's ExoMars Mission in 2011. Skelley has been working on amino-acid detection for 5 years now and this project for the past 2. "When I first started this project, I had seen photos of the Martian surface and possible signs of water, but the existence of liquid water was speculative, and people thought I was crazy to be working on an experiment to detect life on Mars," Skelley said. "I feel vindicated now, thanks to the work of NASA and others that shows there used to be running liquid water on the surface of Mars."

(More info: Berkeley)

- posted by Jim @ 13:52 EST