Researchers at NASA’s Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California have developed a new device to help find life on other planets. The rectangular box, dubbed the “Chemical Laptop”, is a miniature, portable laboratory that resembles the famous tricorder scanning device from the TV show “Star Trek”, and is designed to make data collection faster and easier than ever before.
According to NASA, the Chemical laptop has one primary goal, to find molecules associated with life. It is basically a chemical analyzer made to detect both amino acids and fatty acids, known as “the building blocks of life”, in samples from extraterrestrial territory. Both of these acids can be found in living as well as non-living sources. The researchers believe that discovering both could indicate that life is now or was once present.
The Chemical Laptop hardly looks like a laptop we see on regular basis. Rather it is much thicker, to make space for chemical analysis components inside. And unlike other devices, this laptop doesn’t shut down if you pour water on it. Liquid is essential for it to work.
Jessica Creamer, NASA postdoctoral fellow based at JPL said in a statement, “This could also be an especially useful tool for icy-worlds targets such as Enceladus and Europa. All you would need to do is melt a little bit of the ice, and you could sample it and analyze it directly. ”
Before being analyzed, the samples need to be dissolved in water. To do so, the device uses something researchers are likening to an espresso machine. First, it picks up a liquid or ice sample, then puts it in a tube with liquid water and heats it in the temperature above 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius). Dyes and other chemical additives are used to help mark amino acids and fatty acids in the sample, and anything that’s obtained is analyzed by a laser in the device.
Researchers are keen to see how long the fatty acids’ carbon chains are as well as the ratio of “left-handed” amino acids to “right-handed” amino acids. Left-handed and right-handed amino acids are mirror images of each other, just like the left hand and right hand. Though the molecules have the same elements attached in the same order, they are basically different since they mirror each other.
On earth, living things are made up of left handed amino acids. However, scientists believe that there might be life on other world made up of right handed amino acid. “If a test found a 50-50 mixture of left-handed and right-handed amino acids, we could conclude that the sample was probably not of biological origin,” said Creamer. “But if we were to find an excess of either left-or-right [handed amino acids], that would be the golden ticket. That would be the best evidence so far that life exists on other planets.”
To determine the ratio, scientists put a microchip inside the laptop that separates left-handed and right-handed amino acids. Last year at JPL’s Mars yard, researchers did a field test on Chemical Laptop. Soon, they are going to do another research in the Atacama Desert in Chile as a preparation of sending the device to other worlds like Mars and Europa.