Finding life on Mars could get easier with new tool

February 9th, 2011 - 1:02 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, Feb 9 (ANI): Finding Martian life may soon become easier with the creative adaptation of a common analytical tool that can be installed directly on the robotic arm of a space rover, suggests a new study.

A team of researchers has proposed adding a laser and an ion funnel to a widely used scientific instrument, the mass spectrometer, to analyze the surfaces of rocks and other samples directly on the Red Planet.

The researchers demonstrated that the combined system could work on the spot, without the sample handling that mass spectrometry usually requires.

” This technique could make understanding the composition of rocks and soils on Mars - possibly including evidence of life - much easier,” said lead author, Paul Johnson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Mass spectrometry has previously been used to analyze Martian soil for the first time as part of NASA’s Viking program in the 1970s.

Trying to simplify using Mass spectrometry, the researchers turned to a technique called laser ablation. The method involves shooting a laser at the sample’s surface, which creates a plume of molecules and ions that can then be analyzed by the mass spectrometer.

To make the sample ions enter the mass spectrometer scientists used the technology of electrodynamic ion funnel-a series of conductive, progressively smaller electric ring electrodes that efficiently pull in and focus more ions into the mass spectrometer than without the funnel.

Fortunately, the ion funnel works best when its surrounding environment has an air pressure of about 5 torr, which also happens to be the atmospheric pressure on Mars.

A standard laboratory mass spectrometer was equipped with laser and an ion funnel attachments, and the ion funnel end was placed inside a sealed chamber that matched Mars’ atmospheric conditions.

The researchers shot laser pulses at various samples, such as copper, stainless steel and gypsum. As they suspected, a small layer of each sample’s surface atoms was transformed into ions and the ion funnel quickly pulled them into the mass spectrometer, which identified the samples.

The results are promising, but further work is needed to develop ion funnel-equipped mass spectrometers ready for space. The next step is to make the system as small and light as possible so it could be used on a space exploration rover. The authors plan to pare it down enough to fit onto a rover’s robotic arm.

The findings have been published in the journal Planetary and Space Science. (ANI)

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