NASA has a life-detecting instrument ready to fly to icy moons
NASA scientists have developed a new device designed to autonomously detect life in the watery plumes shooting into space from icy moons like Enceladus and perhaps Europa.
Saturn‘s moon Enceladus and Jupiter‘s moon Europe have long intrigued scientists as prime locations in the solar system Where life could exist. Both have hidden oceans of liquid water with potentially habitable conditions under their icy veneers, but it will be difficult to reach those oceans directly through the thick ice.
Fortunately, the moons can bring their oceans to spacecraft. In 2006, the Cassini Mission to Saturn discovered plumes of water vapor spewing from Enceladus, which is 500 kilometers wide. Likewise, the Hubble Space Telescope has found intriguing evidence for plumes from Europe, which is much larger with a diameter of 3120 km. Now a spacecraft equipped with NASA’s new Ocean Worlds Life Surveyor (OWLS) device can collect water samples as they fly through the plumes and then search for microorganisms that the geysers may have spewed into space.
Cassini actually flew through the plumes, but neither it nor any other mission to the outer solar system to date is equipped with life-finding instruments. Every future mission with OWLS would be different.
However, because of the great distances that separate Soil from Jupiter and Saturn, the bandwidth for returning data is low. Therefore, OWLS must collect massive amounts of data, analyze it autonomously to hopefully discover life itself, and then send only the relevant results back to Earth.
“We’re now starting to ask questions that require more sophisticated instruments,” Lukas Mandrake, the OWLS instrument autonomy system engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, said in a statement. pronunciation. “Are some of these other planets habitable? Is there defensible scientific evidence for life rather than a hint that it might be there? That requires instruments that need a lot of data, and that’s what OWLS and its scientific autonomy is set up to do.” to achieve. “
OWLS is not just one smart instrument, but a series of eight experiments capable of investigating whether life exists in the samples it collects. Tests conducted with OWLS in California’s extremely salty Mono Lake, which scientists believe isn’t too similar to the salty waters of the oceans of Europa and Enceladus, have successfully “discovered” life in California’s lake. Now, with a bit of downsizing, OWLS is ready to tackle the icy moons, the developers say.
“We demonstrated the first generation of the OWLS suite,” Peter Willis, the co-principal investigator of OWLS and the scientific leader of JPL, said in the statement. “The next step is to customize and miniaturize it for specific mission scenarios.”
One of eight instruments within OWLS is the Extant Life Volumetric Imaging System (ELVIS), a group of several microscopes developed in collaboration with scientists at Portland State University in Oregon. Most excitingly, among ELVIS’s microscope arsenal is a digital holographic microscope (DHM). It is capable of recording videos of water samples for tens of seconds at a microscopic scale and then, as the name implies, converts the video into three-dimensional, holographic images. Machine learning algorithms then set to work analyzing the sample’s holographic video: ordinary particles in the water will simply float lazily or remain motionless, but more erratic movements will betray any living microorganisms present.
The DHM can work in conjunction with OWLS’ Organic Capillary Electrophoresis Analysis System (OCEANS). Capillary electrophoresis is a technique to separate organic molecules – such as the various amino acids, fatty acids and nucleic acids on which life depends – in a liquid using electric fields. The molecules are then sent to a mass spectrometer, which measures the masses of particles in the sample, and a volume fluorescence imager, which uses dyes to bind these chemical building blocks together. When excited by a laser, the compounds fluoresce or glow, providing a target for the DHM to focus on.
The development of OWLS has come too late for inclusion in that of the European Space Agency Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE)that explodes in 2023, or NASA’s Europe Clipper mission, which will start in 2024.
However, several missions have been proposed to return to Enceladus from Saturn in the future. Scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have submitted a mission concept to NASA called Orbilander, which would act as both an orbiter and a lander on Enceladus. Then there is Breakthrough Initiatives‘ alleged privately funded Enceladus mission. A previously rejected concept by NASA called the Enceladus Life Finder could also be revived at some point.
Enceladus is too tempting a target to ignore for long, and when we return, OWLS is ready to come along for the ride.
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