Science & Tech

Scientists are developing a laser to find alien life

Scientists are developing a laser to find alien life
The Type Of Alien Most Likely To Invade | Unveiled

A dainty Nasa-funded device is in the making a laser which could detect alien life.

A University of Maryland-led team announced the innovative laser, which aims to remove particles from planetary material. The particles will then be analysed to help find organic compounds.

The handheld device is said to be much more suited than much larger prototypes in the past, and could be ready to launch into space in the "next few years".

Lead author Professor Ricardo Arévalo of Maryland University said: "The Orbitrap was originally built for commercial use,"

"You can find them in the labs of pharmaceutical, medical and proteomic industries. The one in my own lab is just under 400 pounds - so they're quite large."

Sign up for our free Indy100 weekly newsletter

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.

Have your say in our news democracy. Click the upvote icon at the top of the page to help raise this article through the indy100 rankings.

The Conversation (0)