NASA scientists have developed a new device designed to autonomously detect life in aqueous plumes blasted into space from icy moons like Enceladus and possibly Europa.
Saturnthe moon Enceladus and Jupiterthe moon Europe have long intrigued scientists as prime locations in the solar system where life could exist. Both have hidden oceans of liquid water with potentially habitable conditions beneath their ice plating, but reaching those oceans directly through thick ice will be difficult.
Luckily, moons can bring their oceans to spacecraft. In 2006, the Mission Cassini in Saturn discovered plumes of water vapor spewing from Enceladus, which is 500 kilometers wide. Likewise, the The Hubble Space Telescope found intriguing evidence of plumes emanating from Europe, which is much larger at 1,940 miles (3,120 km in diameter). Now, a spacecraft equipped with NASA’s new Ocean Worlds Life Surveyor (OWLS) device could collect water samples while flying through the plumes, then search for any microorganisms that the geysers may have thrown into the atmosphere. space.
Related: See! Our closest sight to Europa, Jupiter’s ocean moon, in 22 years
Cassini in fact flew through the plumes, but neither it nor any other mission to the outer solar system to date has been equipped with instruments capable of finding life. Any future mission carrying OWLS would be different.
However, due to the large distances between Earth of Jupiter and Saturn, the bandwidth for data transmission is low. Therefore, OWLS must collect huge chunks of data, analyze them autonomously to hopefully discover life on its own, and then send only the relevant results back to Earth.
“We are now starting to ask questions that require more sophisticated instruments,” said Lukas Mandrake, who is the OWLS Instrument Autonomy System Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. statement. “Are any of these other planets habitable? Is there defensible scientific evidence of life rather than a hint that it might be there? It requires instruments that take a lot of data, and that’s what that OWLS and its scientific autonomy are set up to accomplish.”
OWLS is not just an intelligent instrument, but a suite of eight experiments capable of determining if life exists in the samples it collects. Tests conducted with OWLS in California’s extremely salty Mono Lake, which scientists say may not be too different from the salty waters of the oceans of Europe and Enceladus, have successfully ‘discovered’ life in California lake. Now, with a bit of downsizing, OWLS is ready to take on the icy moons, say its developers.
“We have demonstrated the first generation of the OWLS suite,” Peter Willis, OWLS co-principal investigator and JPL chief scientist, said in the release. “The next step is to customize and miniaturize it for specific mission scenarios.”
Among the eight instruments at OWLS is the Extant Life Volumetric Imaging System (ELVIS), which is a group of various microscopes, developed in association with scientists at Portland State University in Oregon. Most exciting of ELVIS’ arsenal of microscopes is a digital holographic microscope (DHM). It is capable of recording video of microscale water samples for tens of seconds and then, as the name suggests, converting the video into three-dimensional holographic images. The machine learning algorithms then get to work analyzing the holographic video of the sample: ordinary particles in the water will simply drift lazily or stand still, but more erratic movement will betray any living microorganisms present.
The DHM can work in conjunction with the OWLS Organic Capillary Electrophoresis Analysis System (OCEANS). Capillary electrophoresis is a separation technique organic molecules — such as the various amino acids, fatty acids and nucleic acids on which life depends — in a liquid using electric fields. The molecules are then sent to a mass spectrometer, which measures the masses of particles in the sample, and to a volume fluorescence imager, which uses dyes to bind these chemical building blocks together. When excited by a laser, the compounds fluoresce or glow, giving a target for the DHM to focus on.
The development of OWLS came too late to be included in the program of the European Space Agency Explorer of the Icy Moons of Jupiter (JUS)which takes off in 2023, or that of NASA European Clipper mission, which will be launched in 2024.
However, several missions have been proposed to return to Saturn’s Enceladus in the future. Scientists from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory submitted a mission concept to NASA called Orbilandre, which would function as both an orbiter and a lander on Enceladus. So there is Revolutionary initiatives‘ putative privately funded Enceladus mission. A concept previously denied by NASA, called Enceladus Life Finder, could also be revived at some point.
Enceladus is too tempting a target to ignore for long, and when we return, OWLS is ready to come with us.
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