He said it took eight years to make a prototype "that could be used efficiently in space." Despite its small size and weighing just 17 pounds, it's "less resource-intensive but still capable of cutting-edge science."
"The good thing about a laser source is anything that can be ionised can be analysed," he said.
"If we shoot our laser beam at an ice sample, we should be able to characterise the composition of the ice and see biosignatures in it.
"This tool has such a high mass resolution and accuracy that any molecular or chemical structures in a sample become much more identifiable."
Scientists hope that the new instrument will allow them to find more complex compounds that could indicate alien life.
Existing devices have helped them detect smaller compounds, such as amino acids.
"Amino acids can be produced abiotically, meaning they’re not necessarily proof of life. Meteorites, many of which are chock full of amino acids, can crash onto a planet’s surface and deliver abiotic organics to the surface," Professor Arevalo said.
"We know now that larger and more complex molecules, like proteins, are more likely to have been created by or associated with living systems. The laser lets us study larger and more complex organics that can reflect higher fidelity biosignatures than smaller, simpler compounds."
A paper describing the work, ‘Laser Desorption Mass Spectrometry with an Orbitrap Analyzer for in situ Astrobiology,” is published in Nature Astronomy.
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