After reviewing a plethora of other researchers’ blueprints, NASA has granted $750,000 to UCSB organic chemist Luann Becker to aid in the hunt for life on Mars.
Becker’s design topped three-dozen other bids submitted to NASA for the future mission. The European Space Agency will attach Becker’s instrument, called a mass spectrometer, to a small vehicle that collects surface samples from Mars. Her spectrometer design, the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer, will analyze deposits the rover collects.
To accomplish its set task, the instrument is designed to take a solid sample of a planet’s surface from depths of up to two meters and examine it under a laser. The laser is tuned to grab onto carbon bonds in the organic molecules.
By analyzing the results, Becker said a chemical investigation could be conducted to discover any possible remnants of life or biology.
“[The instrument is] designed to look directly at whatever trace organic signatures may be left at the surface and in the near subsurface,” Becker said.
Currently, Becker is working on the instrument at Johns Hopkins University in collaboration with two co-investigators from the Applied Physics Laboratory and the School of Medicine’s Pharmacology and Molecular Science Dept. Becker said the device is still in the first stages of development.
Becker said MOMA would be launched into space in 2013, as part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission. The goal of the mission is to search for water and possible signs of life below the surface of Mars, as such evidence is not otherwise accessible. NASA is contributing to the mission financially, technologically and as an adviser.
Becker said collaboration between NASA and ESA will play an essential role in future space exploration endeavors.
“This is a great opportunity for NASA and the ESA to work together,” Becker said. “That’s going to be necessary for future missions and exploration of our solar system.”
Becker said Mars, as “a sister planet” to Earth, will be a good place to look for the possibility of early life, though she does not presume life forms exist there today. She said researchers hope to study the molecules of predecessors to early life, as the mission’s findings could provide clues to how life started on Earth.
“Are we alone?” Becker said. “Are we the only intelligent life forms that could have evolved in the Universe?”
Becker’s past work has focused on how life originated and evolved on Earth through time, she said.
“[I am interested in] what causes life to sometimes disappear or go extinct or become extremely stressed to the point that they don’t evolve or even cease to exist,” Becker said.