JPL Developing More Tools to Help Search for Life in Deep Space
Are we alone in the universe? An answer to that age-old question has seemed tantalizingly within reach since the discovery of ice-encrusted moons in our solar system with potentially habitable subsurface oceans. But looking for evidence of life in a frigid sea hundreds of millions of miles away poses tremendous challenges. The science equipment used must be exquisitely complex yet capable of withstanding intense radiation and cryogenic temperatures. What’s more, the instruments must be able to take diverse, independent, complementary measurements that together could produce scientifically defensible proof of life.
To address some of the difficulties that future life-detection missions might encounter, a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has developed OWLS, a powerful suite of science instruments unlike any other. Short for Oceans Worlds Life Surveyor, OWLS is designed to ingest and analyze liquid samples. It features eight instruments — all automated — that, in a lab on Earth, would require the work of several dozen people.
A key difficulty the OWLS team faced was how to process liquid samples in space. On Earth, scientists can rely on gravity, a reasonable lab temperature, and air pressure to keep samples in place, but those conditions don’t exist on a spacecraft hurtling through the solar system or on the surface of a frozen moon. The team designed two instruments that can extract a liquid sample and process it in the conditions of space.
Since it’s not clear what form life might take on an ocean world, OWLS also needed to include the broadest possible array of instruments, capable of measuring a size range from single molecules to microorganisms. To that end, the project joined two subsystems: one that employs a variety of chemical analysis techniques using multiple instruments and one with several microscopes to examine visual clues.
For more about JPL’s OWLS project, go to https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/go/owls.