Researchers from Switzerland and Belgium believe that they have devised the first alien life detector. The tiny motion detector will be able to find microscopic forms of life on distant planets.
To date, scientists have been limited to trying to find signs of extraterrestrial life from an alien world by listening for sounds, scanning the skies with telescopes and by sending robotic probes and rovers to analyze the chemical fingerprint of samples from planets and comets.
But the researchers have now devised a new method that will be the first definitive alien life detector. Monitoring movement, which is regarded as “a universal signature of life,” they will aim to sense tiny motions on a nanolevel.
The researchers began to explore the possibility of searching for movement and alien life with a sensor attuned to those nanoscale vibrations in microscopic organisms such as bacteria, yeast and human cells.
“The nanomotion detector allows studying life from a new perspective: life is movement,” said Giovanni Longo, lead author of the paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“This means that the nanomotion detector can detect any small movement of living systems and deliver a complementary point of view in the search for life.”
The instrument devised by Longo and scientists at Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie in Belgium is smaller than a millimeter and can sense the tiniest nanoscale movements.
They tested the life detector in their lab on a variety of living things, including yeast, E coli, and human, plant and mice cells.
Without exception, when living organisms were placed near the sensor, they “produced an increase in the amplitude of the measured fluctuations,” according to the study.
The scientists also tested soil and water from the ground around their Swiss lab and found that the sensor also detected tiny life from the samples. Movements of the life forms could be manipulated by adding nutrients which the cells would consume or adding chemicals that would kill them, therefore making the motion stop.
“The detection system can be used as a simple, extremely sensitive, and weight-efficient ‘life detector.”
— XEN Life (@XEN_Life) December 26, 2014
Longo said a prototype would cost less than $10,000, use very little battery power and could easily be contained in an eight inch box.
The device has not yet been presented to NASA or the European Space Agency, but efforts are now under way to write a proposal and make a prototype that could travel to space on a robotic vessel or orbiter that is hunting for extraterrestrial life.
If the alien life detector had been available to the ESA’s Rosetta mission, which recently sent its Philae lander onto a comet for the first time and detected water and possible signatures of life in the form of complex carbon, it could have propelled the science one step further. Longo believes it would have determined “if these conditions are still harboring life, in any form.”
The sensor could be used to detect extreme life forms in areas that are hard to measure on Earth, such as volcanoes and the ocean floor and would prove invaluable to space agencies in the search to identify and understand complex life forms on planets.
Unfortunately, it might be years before the sensor is actually tested and used in space.
“It is rare that anything is ‘simple’ in the context of space exploration.”
Professor Ariel Anbar, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, described the work as “refreshing” and a “fundamentally new idea.”
Anbar told AFP,“Motion-detection on such a scale has never been attempted before as an extraterrestrial life detection approach.”
“If it is as technologically simple to implement as the authors claim, then it could be worth integrating into future mission concepts.”
Despite the alien life detector not being ready to set off in exploration just yet, these exciting new developments mean we appear to be closer than ever to finding out who and what else is out there.
[Image: National Geographic]