As space missions explore the solar system’s farthest reaches, they will require analytical tools that are smaller, consume less energy, and are more accurate. This is especially relevant since the continuous hunt for extraterrestrial life and habitable planets and moons are still ongoing.
This is where a new piece of equipment described in an article published in the journal Nature Astronomy titled “Laser Desorption Mass Spectrometry with an Orbitrap Analyzer for In Situ Astrobiology” could prove pivotal.
As part of the study, a team of researchers created a brand-new instrument for NASA space missions under the guidance of the University of Maryland. They can still immediately examine samples of a planet’s material and search for potential signs of life thanks to their tiny, laser-powered analyzer.
Simultaneously, it is far smaller and more resource-efficient than its predecessors.
The instrument, which weighs only about 17 pounds (7.7 kg), is a scaled-down version of two important tools for detecting signs of life and determining the composition of materials: a pulsed ultraviolet laser that removes tiny amounts of material from planetary samples and an Orbitrap analyzer that provides high-resolution information about the chemistry of the materials being examined.
“The Orbitrap was originally designed for commercial use,” said Ricardo Arevalo, the paper’s lead author and an associate professor of geology at UMD.
“They can be found in the laboratories of the pharmaceutical, medical, and proteomic sectors. The one at my lab weighs just under 400 pounds, so they’re large, and it took us 8 years to develop a prototype that could be used efficiently in space—significantly smaller and less resource-intensive, but still capable of cutting-edge science,” he said.
The new device uses LDMS
Researchers created a smaller version of the Orbitrap and paired it with laser desorption mass spectrometry (LDMS). This method has never been utilised on a planet other than Earth.
According to Arevalo, the new device has the same advantages as its larger predecessors. It is still tiny enough to be used for space exploration and investigating planetary materials on the planet.
Because of its tiny size and low power requirements, the Orbitrap LDMS instrument is easy to pack and keep running on space missions. The instrument’s investigations of a planet’s surface or material are far less invasive than many current approaches for identifying unknown substances. This greatly reduces the likelihood of a contaminated or damaged sample.
“The benefit of a laser source is that it can analyse anything that can be ionised. “We should be able to describe the composition of the ice and find biosignatures in it if we aim our laser beam at an ice sample,” Arevalo added.
“This tool has such high mass resolution and precision that any molecular or chemical structure in a sample is much more identifiable,” he added.
The innovative gadget could revolutionise the detection of alien life
Because of the laser component of the tiny LDMS Orbitrap, researchers now have access to larger, more complicated compounds that are more likely to be linked to biology. Amino acids, for example, are a less obvious evidence of life than bigger organic molecules.
“Amino acids can be created abiotically, which means they are not necessarily proof of life. Meteorites, many of which include amino acids, can crash onto a planet’s surface & deliver abiotic organics to the surface, according to Arevalo.
“We now know that larger and more sophisticated compounds, such as proteins, are more likely to have been generated or associated with life systems. “The laser allows us to analyse larger and more complex organics, which can reflect higher fidelity biosignatures than smaller, simpler chemicals,” he continues.
The tiny LDMS Orbitrap will provide Arevalo and his colleagues with critical information and flexibility for future travels to the outer solar system, such as missions to seek for life (such as the Enceladus Orbilander) and to examine the Moon’s surface (like the NASA Artemis Program).
They hope to launch their equipment into orbit within the next five years and place it on a desirable planetary target.
“I see this prototype as a model for future LDMS and Orbitrap-based instruments,” Arevalo stated. “Our tiny Orbitrap LDMS instrument has the potential to greatly improve the way we now investigate planetary surface geochemistry or astrobiology,” he noted.
The study published in the journal Nature Astronomy.