Scientists Created a Device to Find Alien Life That's So Tiny It Fits In Your Hand

The miniature device weighs only 17 pounds and can be deployed on a rover to unambiguously detect signs of life on another world.
Scientists Created a New Device to Find Alien Life That's So Tiny It Fits In Your Hand
The miniature Orbitrap detector. Image: Lori Willhite and Ricardo Arevalo.
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Scientists have developed an alien-hunting device that is small enough to ride on spacecraft destined for ocean worlds in the solar system, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus, reports a new study. 

At just 17 pounds, the new instrument is a dramatically miniaturized version of an “Orbitrap,” a popular device for detecting compounds that usually weighs hundreds of pounds—it’s so small that it fits in a person’s hand. It is designed to scan extraterrestrial samples for signs of life, known as biosignatures, with a sophisticated technique known as laser desorption mass spectrometry (LDMS).


Humans have wondered whether we are alone in the universe for thousands of years, but the advent of spaceflight has made it possible to seek the answer to that grand mystery in the wider solar system. Mars is currently the focal point of this effort, but alien-hunting missions to Venus, Europa, Enceladus, and Saturn’s moon Titan are also currently in the works.

To search for life on these tantalizing worlds, mission planners need instruments that are both extremely precise, but also small enough to fit on a spacecraft, which can be a tough sweet spot to hit. Now, scientists led by Ricardo Arévalo, Jr., an associate professor of geology at the University of Maryland, have offered a new solution with their LDMS instrument, which can unambiguously identify biological compounds in environments that are expected to be similar to icy ocean worlds, like Europa and Enceladus, according to a study published on Monday in Nature Astronomy.  

“Future astrobiology missions to Europa, Enceladus and other potentially viable ocean worlds will be challenged to distinguish biological signatures without bias towards features associated with terrestrial life,” Arévalo and his colleagues said in the study.

“The capacity to catalog the organic inventory of samples and simultaneously measure major, minor and trace elements (such as rare Earth elements) for geological/mineralogical context positions this instrument for a wide range of high-priority mission concepts, such as those focused on in situ life detection objectives at ocean worlds,” the team added.


In other words, the LDMS instrument is designed to distinguish between genuine alien biosignatures and any Earth microbes that may have contaminated a sample. It can also pick out compounds that were made by biological processes, as opposed to very similar compounds that are made by abiotic mechanisms. The device uses an ultraviolet laser to position the sample and the Orbitrap setup to provide high-resolution observations, enabling it to resolve fine details about the chemical makeup and structure of the material. 

Telling the difference between aliens and Earthlings, or aliens and inanimate objects, sounds simple on its surface, but the organic compounds that make up living things can be frustratingly similar to those produced by regular geological activity. For instance, back in the 1970s, the instruments onboard NASA’s Viking Mars landers detected organic compounds that some scientists still believe were biological in origin, though the results were ultimately deemed inconclusive.

The new LDMS instrument is intended to avoid that murky outcome by miniaturizing advanced spectroscopic technologies. 

Though it has not yet been tested in an extraterrestrial environment, several forthcoming missions may carry a version of the device, including NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft, which aims to visit Titan in the 2030s. Arévalo and his colleagues also noted the potential of the instrument on concept missions to land on Europa and Enceladus, both of which contain subsurface oceans that could host life. 

“The Orbitrap analyser, originally developed for commercial laboratories but recently adapted for planetary applications, delivers 100× higher mass resolution and mass accuracy compared with the legacy quadrupole sensors that have explored the inner and outer reaches of the Solar System,” the researchers said in the study. 

The instrument represents “an engineering model of a spaceflight design that fits within the limited resources expected for a mission to the outer Solar System,” the team concluded.