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Sunday, March 11, 2007

New Instruments to Detect Life

Extreme close up of a single Mars Oxidant Instrument (MOI) chemical sensor array.
Extreme close up of a single Mars Oxidant Instrument (MOI) chemical sensor array.
Credit: NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., in collaboration with the SETI Institute, Mountain View, Calif., and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif
A new instrument called Urey: Mars Organic and Oxidant Detector is being developed to test for signs of life on the Red Planet. It has already been tested in the Atacama Desert in Chile, with promising results. The ESA selected this instrument for use on its ExoMars Mission, and has awarded the team $750k.

Dr. Pascale Ehrenfreund of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, said, "The main objective of ExoMars is to search for life. Urey will be a key instrument for that because it is the one with the highest sensitivity for organic chemicals." "Urey will be able to detect key molecules associated with life at a sensitivity roughly a million times greater than previous instrumentation," said Dr. Jeffrey Bada of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

One of this things that is looked for is the chirality of the molecules found. Life tends towards only one, whereas non-biological sources produce an even mix. "The Urey instrument will be able to distinguish between left-handed amino acids and right-handed ones," said Allen Farrington, Urey project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which will build the instrument to be sent to Mars.

Since Viking found an oxidizing enviroment on Mars, the MOI (pictured left) will test for this as well. "By measuring the reaction of the sensor films with chemicals present in the Martian soil and atmosphere, we can establish if organisms could survive and if evidence of past life would be preserved," said Dr. Richard Quinn, a co-investigator on Urey from the SETI Institute, Mountain View, Calif., who also works at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "In order to improve our chances of finding chemical evidence of life on Mars, and designing human habitats and other equipment that will function well on Mars' surface, we need to improve our understanding of oxidants in the planet's surface environment," said Dr. Aaron Zent, a Urey co-investigator at NASA Ames.

(More info: NASA)

- posted by Jim @ 22:35 EST