One Step Closer to Tricorders, with Handheld Device that Identifies Life Forms

Using nothing more than a battery-powered device that emits a beam of ultraviolet light, future robotic explorers will be able to identify the building blocks of life on other planets and moons. A group of scientists in the U.S. and the U.K. have developed a small device which uses a low-power laser beam to sweep over rocks or soil, identifying identify organic substances that are the signposts of life as we know it. Specifically, the little machine "sees" life by causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), often called the earliest form of organic matter in the universe, to light up. The discovery is so promising that it's likely to be launched out with the next generation of Mars rovers.

According to a release from Oregon State University, where some of the research took place:

While using fluorescence to illuminate organic material has been done for decades, light sources were too large and unwieldy to use for a robotic mission to another planet, said [researcher Michael] Storrie-Lombardi. However, new generations of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are very small, reliable and energy efficient, he added.

"Placed on a Mars rover, one of these LEDs positioned a few centimeters from a target can easily provide enough light to produce fluorescence in small polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons," Storrie-Lombardi said. "But even more encouraging is the very recent development of a small 375 nanometer laser diode that can illuminate anything a PanCam can see, including geological layers and crevices high up on an otherwise inaccessible rock outcrop."

Added [U.K. scientist Jan-Peter] Muller: "This laser is now undergoing rigorous tests in the laboratory under Mars-like conditions prior to showing that it is flight-ready, even at this late stage, to be seriously considered to be launched in only five years' time."

The instrument appears to be "an ideal initial survey tool," Storrie-Lombardi pointed out.

"It requires no sample preparation, does not destroy sample material and requires only electrical power to operate, conserving precious water and other consumable resources for sister instruments," he said.

I'm waiting for a USB version of the device to attach to my laptop or mobile. You never know where you might need to scan for lifeforms.

Laser fluorescence could find life on Mars [via Eurekalert]