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This automated extractor uses water, high pressure and high temperature to release amino acids trapped inside of soil samples. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Few places are as hostile to life as Chile’s Atacama Desert. It’s the driest place on Earth, and only the hardiest microbes survive there. Its rocky landscape has lain undisturbed for eons, exposed to extreme temperatures and radiation from the sun.

If you can find life here, you might be able to find it in an even harsher environment — like the surface of Mars. That’s why a team of researchers from NASA and several universities visited the Atacama in February. They spent 10 days testing devices that could one day be used to search for signs of life on other worlds. That group included a team from Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on a portable chemistry lab called the Chemical Laptop.

With just a small water sample, the Laptop can check for amino acids, the organic molecules that are widespread in our solar system and considered the building blocks of all life as we know it. Liquid-based analysis techniques have been shown to be orders of magnitude more sensitive than gas-based methods for the same kinds of samples. But when you scoop up a sample from Mars, the amino acids you’re looking for will be trapped inside of or chemically bonded to minerals.

To break down those bonds, JPL has designed another piece of technology, a subcritical water extractor that would act as the “front end” for the Laptop. This extractor uses water to release the amino acids from a soil sample, leaving them ready to be analyzed by the Chemical Laptop.

“These two pieces of technology work together so that we can search for biosignatures in solid samples on rocky or icy worlds,” said Peter Willis of JPL, the project’s principal investigator. “The Atacama served as a proving ground to see how this technology would work on an arid planet like Mars.”

To find life, just add water

Willis’ team revisited an Atacama site he first went to in 2005. At that time, the extractor he used was manually operated; in February, the team used an automated extractor designed by Florian Kehl, a postdoctoral researcher at JPL.

The extractor ingests soil and regolith samples and mixes them with water. Then, it subjects the samples to high pressure and temperature to get the organics out.

“At high temperatures, water has the ability to dissolve the organic compounds from the soil,” Kehl said. “Think of a tea bag: in cold water, not much happens. But when you add hot water, the tea releases an entire bouquet of molecules that gives the water a particular flavor, color and smell.”

To remove the amino acids from those minerals, the water has to get much hotter than your ordinary cup of tea: Kehl said the extractor is currently able to reach temperatures as high as 392 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius).

Liquid samples would be more readily available on ocean worlds like Jupiter’s moon…

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