A machine that has been touted as ‘the most sensitive device of its kind’ might be key to discovering if alien life exists outside of Earth. NASA is calling it the “Chemical Laptop”—a device currently being developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The device will essentially function as a miniature lab that can analyze samples as it searches for signs of life on locations such as Mars or (hopefully) even Europa.
“If this instrument were to be sent to space, it would be the most sensitive device of its kind to leave Earth, and the first to be able to look for both amino acids and fatty acids,” said Jessica Creamer, a NASA postdoctoral fellow based at JPL.
The device, which runs on batteries, is about the size of regular laptops, only thicker. The added thickness is necessary to accommodate the features that will allow it to conduct chemical analyses of samples that it will ingest, such as amino and fatty acids, both of which are building blocks for proteins that are present in life sources. Notably, these proteins are also utilized in non-life sources; however, researchers believe that the Chemical Laptop may be able to distinguish between each.
Last year, researchers behind the technology conducted a field test for the Chemical Laptop at JPL’s Mars Yard, where the device was shown to work effectively outside of a laboratory setting.
The scientists behind the study are continuously working to improve the sensitivity of the Chemical Laptop to detect even the smallest amounts of amino or fatty acids. To date, it can detect concentrations as low as parts per trillion (if you aren't aware, "a trillion" is a really big number). The device is also undergoing testing for additional laser and detector technology. There is also a test in the Atacama Desert in Chile in the pipeline.
The team behind the work asserts that, in the end, the technology will prove to be useful for exploring and studying more than just the icy environments for alien worlds like Europa and Enceladus. On Earth, it can be used for environmental monitoring.