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Life detection instrument passes key test on road to Mars

The dry, dusty, treeless expanse of Chile's Atacama Desert is the most lifeless spot on the face of the Earth, and that's why Alison Skelley and Richard Mathies joined a team of NASA scientists there earlier this month.

The University of California, Berkeley, scientists knew that if the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA) they'd built could detect life in that crusty, arid land, then it would have a good chance some day of detecting life on the planet Mars.

In a place that hadn't seen a blade of grass or a bug for ages, and contending with dust and temperature extremes that left her either freezing or sweating, Skelley ran 340 tests that proved the instrument could unambiguously detect amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. More importantly, she and Mathies were able to detect the preference of Earth's amino acids for left-handedness over right-handedness. This "homochirality" is a hallmark of life that Mathies thinks is a critical test that must be done on Mars.

"We feel that measuring homochirality - a prevalence of one type of handedness over another - would be absolute proof of life," said Mathies, professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley and Skelley's research advisor. "We've shown on Earth, in the most Mars-like environment available, that this instrument is a thousand times better at detecting biomarkers than any instrument put on Mars before."

The instrument has been chosen to fly aboard the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission, now scheduled to launch in 2011. The MOA will be integrated with the Mars Organic Detector, which is being assembled by scientists directed by Frank Grunthaner at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena together with Jeff Bada's group at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Skelley, a graduate student who has been working on amino acid detection with Mathies for five years and on the portable MOA analyzer for the past two years, is hoping to remain with the project as it go
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Source:University of California - Berkeley


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