The answer is yes, potentially anyway. You see, a laptop is in development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California. However, this is no ordinary laptop; this is a laptop which could look for signs of organisms on other planets *gasp*.This form of portable technology could be revolutionary to the way we explore extra-terrestrial life.
The device does this by gathering samples and finding amino acids. This is when we all start getting confused. Amino acids make up proteins and there are two types of amino acids: left-handed amino acids, and its mirror image, right-handed amino acids− just like our dexterities! The laptop will also find fatty acids which are part of cell membranes. Some scientists think that Earth life only uses the ‘left-handed’ type due to evolution but there is a possibility that life in other worlds may use the opposite.
“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 but if we were to find an excess of either left or right, that would be the golden ticket. That would be the best evidence so far that life exists on other planets.” Jessica Creamer, JPL researcher
Now let’s get to how the contraption works. The chemical laptop is battery-powered and uses a liquid sample for analysis. The team worked with Luther Beegle from the Jet Propulsion Lab to use a technology based on coffee machines; this means that the sample will be put in a tube of water and boiled. The water comes out carrying the organic molecules. The sample is then fed into the chemical laptop and is mixed with a fluorescent dye which attaches it to the amino or fatty acids. A similar principle has been used without water and only heat at the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite on the Mars Curiosity rover.
The sample flows into a microchip where they can be separated from each other. Researchers can then see signal correspondents to amino/fatty acids when passing the laser.
Inside this part of the microchip there are chemical additives which mix with the sample. Some of these will interact with the right handed amino acids and others will only interact with the left-handed type which will allow scientists to determine the types of amino acids in the sample.
Some future uses for this chemical laptop, as well as looking for signs of life outside of earth are monitoring the environment and testing drugs’ contents to see whether they’re legitimate or counterfeit.
Anaya and Autumn – coordinators for the Science and Technology section.