Scientists at NASA and the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM) have created a cutting-edge new spectroscopy instrument to assist in the hunt for extra-terrestrial life.
The new instrument was made to find compounds and minerals associated with biological activity in surface samples taken by landers on distant planets. The researchers said their device functions faster and has greater sensitivity than previous similar instruments.
The team created the new instrument to expand on an analytical process referred to as micro-Raman spectroscopy. This method uses the interaction between laser light and a sample to identify the chemical composition of a sample on a microscopic scale. The new tool can identify organic compounds like the amino acids and identify minerals created by biochemical processes on Earth, which might point to life on other planets.
Team leader M. Nurul Abedin, from NASA’s Langley Research Center, said the new device is one of the most advanced Raman spectrometers ever created.
“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,” Abedin said in a news release.
In a new report, the researchers said their new system, dubbed the Standoff Ultra-Compact micro-Raman (SUCR) instrument, is the first micro-Raman instrument capable of analysing specimens only four inches from the instrument with 17.3-micron resolution, which is finer than a human hair. The new spectrometer also performs analyses considerably faster than other micro-Raman devices and it is very compact. These qualities essential for applications in deep space and could also make the instrument useful for biomedical and food testing.
Micro-Raman spectroscopy is being explored for detecting skin cancer without a biopsy and can be used to for food analysis applications such as measuring caffeine in drinks. Our system could be used for these applications and others to provide fast chemical analysis that doesn’t require sending samples off to a laboratory.
M. Nurul Abedin, Team Leader
All instruments used in space exploration must small and light in order to minimize the fuel required to transport them to distance planets and moons. These tools must also be strong enough to withstand lift-off, the harsh conditions in space and landing manoeuvres.
The new SUCR device uses a direct-coupled Raman system originally created by UHM researchers for remote chemical detection of specimens over 100 meters away in daylight conditions. To develop the new spectroscopy instrument, the scientists changed the optics of their system to get spectra of specimens closer to the instrument. They also further decreased system’s size by using a smaller spectrometer.
The team linked all the optics directly to the spectrometer, giving it a much higher performance than fibre-coupled systems that are prone to signal deterioration.
The new instrument provides multiple critical advancements on earlier micro-Raman spectroscopy instruments, which require specimens to be gathered before analysis and low-light conditions. The team meticulously designed the optics to enable fast evaluation under daylight conditions and to generate a powerful Raman signal that isn’t as vulnerable to interference.
In standard room-lighting conditions, the study team was able to use SUCR to investigate minerals and organic compounds associated with life as we know it, including included sulphur, naphthalene, water, and amino acids.
Leveraging the speed of the system, the team hopes to be able to generate a Raman map of a 5-by-5 millimetre space in just one minute. Achieving this with a traditional micro-Raman system would take multiple days.
The scientists said their next step is to evaluate the SUCR instrument in conditions that resemble those found on Mars. Ultimately, the team's objective is to confirm that the device is capable of operating accurately under these conditions.
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