Search For Alien Life: NASA To Use Chemistry Test 10,000 Times More Sensitive

When asked, critics of the various governments’ space programs ultimately narrow down their pet peeves to one: Being frustrated with the seeming lackadaisical search for alien life. Why, with all the money that has been thrown at dozens of NASA, Rocosmos, and other space agency missions over the decades, has the search for alien life been sidelined or scuttled (or perhaps not even considered) — or relegated to some sample testings that lend themselves more to the debate of the existence of extraterrestrial life than to definitively making a decisive call? Reasons are varied, of course, and range from not having enough funding to include some sort of test in the current mission to trying to develop tests that are specifically designed to search out life in the environments where they will be employed.

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are at work developing a new method of chemical analysis which stands to be 10,000 times more sensitive than any tests currently in use on any known craft, including the Mars Curiosity Rover. Seeker reported earlier in the week that, as more and more robotic missions to the Solar System’s planets and moons are being planned, scientists are working on a better chemistry test by which to detect specific types of amino acids — those tied to living organisms.

The newly devised method works by mixing a liquid sample collected from the surface of an alien planet with a chemical known as a liquid reagent. A laser is then shone across the mixture, the molecules therein contained can be seen moving at different speeds after being exposed to an electric field. Those different molecules can be identified. The entire process, called “capillary electrophoresis,” can be completed autonomously, without human aid, and has the added benefit of detecting multiple types of amino acids simultaneously.

“Our method improves on previous attempts by increasing the number of amino acids that can be detected in a single run,” said postdoctoral researcher Jessica Creamer in a statement from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). She noted that capillary electrophoresis had been around since the 1980s, and that the new method was an improvement on known processes. “Additionally, it allows us to detect these amino acids at very low concentrations, even in highly salty samples, with a very simple ‘mix and analyze’ process.”

Mars rover sampling possible alien life
Mars Phoenix Rover obtaining a sample from the alien surface. [Image by Stocktrek Images/Thinkstock/Getty Images]

NASA researchers, according to the JPL statement, “used the technique to analyze amino acids present in the salt-rich waters of Mono Lake in California. The lake’s exceptionally high alkaline content makes it a challenging habitat for life, and an excellent stand-in for salty waters believed to be on Mars, or the ocean worlds of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa.”

The project’s principal investigator at JPL, Peter Willis, said, “Using our method, we are able to tell the difference between amino acids that come from non-living sources like meteorites versus amino acids that come from living organisms.”

It is as yet unclear when the process will be packaged into a device that can be used to detect alien life.

Possible alien bacteria
It is believed by some that alien life, if found in the Solar System, will be microbial. [Image by ClaudioVentrella/Thinkstock/Getty Images]

In the meantime, the search for extraterrestrial life will continue from afar. As covered by the Inquisitr, a recent study from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville noted that certain bacteria would be able to survive the extremely thin atmosphere on Mars, meaning that life might not only have existed on the Red Planet’s past but also might still be extant. Another recent study suggested that “spooky looking clouds” in the atmosphere on Venus could possibly be microbial life, protected from the sulfuric acid atmosphere by S8 molecules, molecules capable of absorbing ultraviolet light and warding off the corrosive effects of sulfuric acid.

“One of NASA’s highest-level objectives is the search for life in the universe,” Willis said. “Our best chance of finding life is by using powerful liquid-based analyses like this one on ocean worlds.”

[Featured Image by ShopPix2/Thinkstock/Getty Images]