A team of scientists is developing new tools to help search for life in deep space

(ORDO NEWS) — To address some of the challenges that future life detection missions may face, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory team has developed the Oceans Worlds Life Surveyor (OWLS), a powerful set of scientific instruments designed to receive and analyze liquid samples.

In June, the project team tested the equipment in the salty waters of Mono Lake in California. OWLS discovered chemical and cellular evidence of life, using embedded software to identify that evidence without human intervention.

Since it is not clear what form life in the ocean world might take, OWLS should have a wide range of instruments capable of measuring the size range from individual molecules to microorganisms.

To this end, the project has combined two subsystems: the first uses various methods of chemical analysis, and the second examines visual cues using microscopes.

The OWLS microscopic system includes a digital holographic microscope capable of identifying cells and movement throughout the sample, and 2 fluorescent thermal imagers that use dyes to observe the chemical composition and cellular structures.

The microscope subsystem, dubbed the Extant Life Volumetric Imaging System (ELVIS), uses machine learning algorithms to both detect realistic motion and detect objects illuminated by fluorescent molecules.

To study much smaller forms, OWLS uses its Organic Capillary Electrophoresis Analysis System (OCEANS), which essentially prepares pressurized liquid samples and feeds them to instruments that look for all kinds of amino acids as well as fatty acids and organic compounds.

The system is so sensitive that it can even detect unknown forms of carbon.

OCEANS uses a technique called capillary electrophoresis. The system essentially runs an electrical current through the sample to separate it into its constituents. The sample is then sent to three types of detectors, including a mass spectrometer.

The subsystems produce huge amounts of information, of which only approximately 0.0001% can be sent back to Earth due to the limited data rate.

However, OWLS was designed with so-called “autonomy of onboard scientific instruments” in mind: using special algorithms, computers select only the most interesting data to send home.


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