Scientists reduced the size of a Chemistry Lab to find Life on Mars

Scientists reduced the size of a Chemistry Lab to find Life on Mars

Mars North Pole

Scientists from different parts of the world joined forces to develop a tiny lab that may unveil secrets of past life from Mars.

Humans are trying really hard to find signs of life on Mars and these efforts received a massive boost recently as an international team of scientists has built a miniature lab that will help humanity to explore what is present beneath the Martian surface. The name given to this toaster oven-sized instrument is Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA). It will be installed in an upcoming mission to Mars called ExoMars Rover which will be launched towards its destination (Mars) in July, next year.

Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, collaborated with the European Space Agency in order to complete this mission. A significant input from NASA was also provided to ensure efficient development of MOMA. Will Brinckerhoff of the Goddard Space Flight Center of NASA who is the Project Scientist of MOMA briefed the world about the benefits of this mission by saying,

The ExoMars Rover’s two-meter deep drill will provide MOMA with unique samples that may contain complex organic compounds preserved from an ancient era, when life might have gotten started on Mars.”  

The most obvious challenge that the team of this lab had to overcome was to reduce the size of the equipment. The instruments that would generally occupy a couple of workbenches in a Chemistry lab were shrunk to the size of a toaster. This revolutionary instrument is completely practical for installing it to a rover and it has the ability to detect several organic molecules. Despite the fact that we can manufacture organic compounds through non-living processes, they are commonly linked with life. MOMA will travel to the red planet in the quest for such molecules.

The entire construction of MOMA revolves around a tiny mass spectrometer which separates charged atoms and molecules on the basis of their mass. The procedure for finding organic compounds in Martian surface can be divided into two major steps. Firstly, we need to filter out the organic material from the rocks of Mars. Once it is done, we need to ionize these molecules by passing electric charge through them. MOMA has been programmed to perform two different methods in order to separate different types of organic molecules.

One of them is known as the baking procedure as an oven is used to vaporize a sample. These vapors are then transferred to a thin column where the separation of the mixture of compounds is done. After that, these compounds enter the mass spectrometer one by one. All the constituent compounds are arranged in terms of their mass-to-electric-charge ratio. A mass spectrum is used to identify all types of molecules.

MOMA has a second method for fragile large molecules that may decompose during the heating process. In this technique, the sample is exposed to a laser beam. As only a quick burst of laser is used, it vaporizes large molecules without breaking them completely. They also become charged due to the exposure to laser and are transferred directly to the spectrometer.

Contamination is another massive challenge that could hamper the results of ExoMars. As Earth is full of life, there are all the chances in the world that the rover might carry organic material from our planet. The team of MOMA is quite aware of this fact and that is the reason why they are extra-cautious to keep the instrument as free as possible from the terrestrial molecules. This mission becomes a whole lot more important as it will be the first to explore Mars beneath its surface.

In spite of the fact that the red planet doesn’t support any known form of life today, there is scientific evidence that liquid water did exist on the Martian surface as the climate of Mars was friendlier in the distant past. Mineral deposits inside dry riverbeds are the most conclusive indications in this regard as they can form only in the presence of liquid water. Rovers like Curiosity and Opportunity have analyzed the Martian surface over time and they have found additional signs that suggest that the environment of Mars was actually habitable in the past. In these circumstances, scientists from different parts of the world are pretty hopeful that ExoMars rover will reveal more secrets about our neighbor in the solar system.

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