"Mars was a lot different 3-1/2 billion years ago. It was more like Earth with liquid water," said Jennifer Eigenbrode, a scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Maybe life existed back then. Maybe it has persisted, which is possible given the fact that we've found life in every extreme environment here on Earth. If life existed on Mars, maybe it adapted very much like life adapted here."
An experiment proposed by Eigenbrode has been added to the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument on a mobile NASA laboratory that will land on Mars in 2012. Goddard scientists developed SAM. The newly added experiment will enhance SAM's ability to analyze large carbon molecules if the mission is fortunate enough to find any.
The mission, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, will be checking whether a carefully chosen area of Mars has ever had an environment favorable for the development of life and preservation of evidence about life. The mission's car-sized rover will analyze dozens of samples scooped from soil and drilled from rocks.
None of the rover's 10 instruments is designed to identify past or present life, but SAM has a key role of checking for carbon-containing compounds that potentially can be ingredients or markers of life. Most environments on Mars may not have enabled preservation of these compounds, which are called organic molecules, but if any did, that could be evidence of conditions favorable for life.
Eigenbrode secured the flight opportunity for her experiment after successfully proving in a series of tests earlier this year that the combination of heat and a specific chemical would significantly enhance SAM's ability to analyze large carbon molecules.
In particular, Eigenbrode's experiment will provide far more details about the evolution of large organic molecules that are made up of smaller molecules such as carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids — should SAM find them. "Our experiment preserves information on how these molecules formed," she said. "What we'll get are key observations that tell us about organic carbon sources and processing on Mars — shedding light on the planet's carbon cycle."
SAM is considered one of the most complicated instruments ever to land on the surface of another planet. Equipped with a gas chromatograph, a quadruple mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer, SAM will carry out the initial search for organic compounds when the Mars Science Laboratory lands in 2012. To identify organic compounds, however, the instrument will have to prepare soil and rock samples before it can obtain measurements.
As planned, the rover's robotic arm will scoop up the soil and drill rock samples and a separate mechanism will deliver the samples to SAM's sample-manipulation system, a carousel-like device that contains two concentric rings holding 74 tiny tubes. Once the tubes are filled with the fine-grained samples, the carousel will rotate and insert the tube inside a pyrolysis oven. As the oven heats, the hermetically sealed sample will begin to break down, releasing gases that SAM's instrument will then analyze for potential biomarkers.
There is a catch, however. Although SAM will be effective at identifying organic compounds, heat breaks carbon bonds, resulting in fragmentation and the loss of molecular information. What was needed, Eigenbrode believed, were other ways to prep the samples to prevent fragmentation and obtain more details.
In her quest to find these techniques, Eigenbrode investigated methods that would give a robotic laboratory operating millions of miles from home the same flexibility and capability of an Earth-based organic geochemistry laboratory. "Sample preparation is the forgotten science in Mars exploration," Eigenbrode said. "An instrument is only as good as the sample, and there is no single method for identifying all molecular components."
In 2009, she tested rocks similar to those found on the red plant, prepping the sample with a small amount of tetramethylammonium hydroxide in methanol (TMAH), a chemical mixture used in laboratories for studying organic compounds. She then heated the sample to determine whether the TMAH not only preserved the sample's molecular structure, but also could survive the higher levels of radiation found on Mars. The testing proved successful.
No Technology Hurdles
The tests also proved that the addition of her experiment on SAM posed no technical challenges. Ten of the 74 carousel cups already were reserved for a "wet chemistry" experiment effective for analyzing free amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
Seeing the benefit of adding Eigenbrode's sample-preparation method to the overall SAM mission, Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy and scientists Daniel Glavin and Jason Dworkin agreed to donate two of the 10 cups for her experiment. Just a few weeks ago, the SAM team added and sealed the TMAH chemical inside the two cups.
"With the addition of Jennifer's chemical toolkit, the range of organic molecules that SAM can detect has been expanded with no hardware modifications. It provides a promising path to contribute to our understanding of the biological potential on MARS," Mahaffy said.
"When I began working on my concept in early 2009, I thought it might be suitable for a future Mars mission, perhaps in 2016," Eigenbrode said. "I never thought that it would fly so soon on SAM. I believe we have really enhanced the capabilities of SAM should it find organic material. What I really want now is to find macromolecules on Mars."
Lori Keesey | EurekAlert!
New way to write magnetic info could pave the way for hardware neural networks
21.11.2017 | Imperial College London
From Hannover around the world and to the Mars: LZH delivers laser for ExoMars 2020
21.11.2017 | Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V.
The WHO reports an estimated 429,000 malaria deaths each year. The disease mostly affects tropical and subtropical regions and in particular the African continent. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME and the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Tübingen for a new test method to detect malaria parasites in blood. The idea of the research project “NanoFRET” is to develop a highly sensitive and reliable rapid diagnostic test so that patient treatment can begin as early as possible.
Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquito bite. The most dangerous form of malaria is malaria tropica. Left untreated, it is fatal in most cases....
The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.
Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...
Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.
That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...
Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.
During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....
The quantum world is fragile; error correction codes are needed to protect the information stored in a quantum object from the deteriorating effects of noise. Quantum physicists in Innsbruck have developed a protocol to pass quantum information between differently encoded building blocks of a future quantum computer, such as processors and memories. Scientists may use this protocol in the future to build a data bus for quantum computers. The researchers have published their work in the journal Nature Communications.
Future quantum computers will be able to solve problems where conventional computers fail today. We are still far away from any large-scale implementation,...
15.11.2017 | Event News
15.11.2017 | Event News
30.10.2017 | Event News
21.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
21.11.2017 | Materials Sciences
21.11.2017 | Health and Medicine