Nasa’s ‘chemical laptop’ to search for alien life

WASHINGTON (TIP): In a bid to find concrete evidence of life outside Earth, Nasa is developing a ‘chemical laptop’ -the first portable, miniaturised laboratory built to detect both amino and fatty acids on other worlds. The battery-powered device analyses samples for materials associated with life.

“If this instrument was to be sent to space, it would be the most sensitive device of its kind to lea ve Earth,” said Jessica Creamer, a Nasa postdoctoral fellow.

Like a tricorder from Star Trek, the chemical laptop is roughly the size of a regular laptop, but much thicker to make room for chemical analysis components. But unlike a tricorder, it has to ingest a sample to analyse it, Nasa said.

“It is a chemical analyser that can be reprogrammed like a laptop to perform different functions. As on a regular laptop, we have different apps for different analyses like amino acids and fatty acids,” said Fernanda Mora, a technologist.

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. Amino acids come in two types: Left-handed and right-handed.Like the left and right hands of a person, these amino acids are mirror images of each other but contain same components.

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Some scientists hypothesise that life on Earth evolved to use just left-handed amino acids because that standard was adopted early in life’s history. It is possible that life on other worlds might use the right-handed kind. “If a test found a 50-50 mixture of lefthanded and right-handed amino acids, we could conclude that the sample was probably not of biological origin,” Creamer said. “But if we were to find an excess of either left or right, that would be the best evidence so far that life exists on other planets,” she said.

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