While the opinions of experts on the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life (and our ability to find it) don’t exactly align, the search for evidence of past and present life on other planets remains and integral part of the NASA Planetary Exploration Programme.
Recently, the agency, in collaboration with the University of Hawaii, had constructed a new instrument, called Standoff Ultra-Compact Raman (SUCR), claimed to be one of the most advanced Raman spectrometers ever devised – hopefully a step forward in developing even more sophisticated technology akin to tricorders depicted in the science fiction show Star Trek.
“It overcomes some of the key limitations of traditional micro Raman instruments and is designed to serve as an ideal instrument for future missions that use rovers or landers to explore the surface of Mars or Jupiter’s icy Europa moon,” said M. Nurul Abedin of the NASA Langley Research Centre tasked with leading the project.
Micro Raman spectroscopy is based on laser technology capable of providing detailed information on the chemical make-up of a sample, making it useful for detecting certain organic compounds, such as amino acids, found in living organisms, as well as minerals formed via biochemical processes on Earth.
In a paper, recently published in the journal Applied Optics, the research team claims the new instrument is the first to perform micro Raman analysis on samples at a distance of 10 centimetres with 17.3-micron resolution.
The instrument is not only faster (and significantly so) than other devices reliant on the same technique, but also more compact, indicating its use for real-time biomedical and food analyses which do not require sending a sample off to a lab. The method is already being explored for detecting skin cancer without taking a biopsy.
Apart from the reduction in size, lighter weight, faster turn-out speed (mapping an area with SUCR would take minutes instead of days compared to current systems) and no requirement for sampling, the instrument is also superior in terms of its capacity for conducting analysis in broad daylight.
Having tested the instrument in the lab, the research team plans to begin the validation process to prove its viability under conditions prevailing in space.