'Chemical Laptop' Could Search for Signs of Life Outside Earth


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If you were looking for the signatures of life on another world, you would want to take something small and portable with you. That's the philosophy behind the "Chemical Laptop" being developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California: a miniaturized laboratory that analyzes samples for materials associated with life.

"If this instrument were to be sent to space, it would be the most sensitive device of its kind to leave Earth, and the first to be able to look for both amino acids and fatty acids," said Jessica Creamer, a NASA postdoctoral fellow based at JPL.

Like a tricorder from "Star Trek," the Chemical Laptop is a miniaturized on-the-go laboratory, which researchers hope to send one day to another planetary body such as Mars or Europa. It is roughly the size of a regular computing laptop, but much thicker to make room for chemical analysis components inside. But unlike a tricorder, it has to ingest a sample to analyze it. 

"Our device is a chemical analyzer that can be reprogrammed like a laptop to perform different functions," said Fernanda Mora, a JPL technologist who is developing the instrument with JPL's Peter Willis, the project's principal investigator. "As on a regular laptop, we have different apps for different analyses like amino acids and fatty acids."

Amino acids are building blocks of proteins, while fatty acids are key components of cell membranes. Both are essential to life, but can also be found in non-life sources. The Chemical Laptop may be able to tell the difference.

Chemical_Laptop2.jpg
 
JPL researchers Jessica Creamer, Fernanda Mora and Peter Willis (left to right) pose with the Chemical Laptop, a device designed to detect amino acids and fatty acids. At left is a near-identical copy of the Curiosity rover, which has been on Mars since 2012.Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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