Building the Tools for Astrobiology’s Future

The NASA Astrobiology program has selected eight new projects for funding under the Astrobiology Science and Technology for Instrument Development Program (ASTID). The ASTID program is an essential component in furthering NASA’s astrobiology goals, and provides funding for new instruments that can be used in space missions as well as Earth-based research projects. ASTID projects turn novel concepts into laboratory instruments that will open new areas of study and the development of astrobiology mission concepts and payloads for future missions.

Funding from the ASTID program has provided technologies like the Urey Mars Organic and Oxidant Detector for Europe’s ExoMars mission, and the Magneto-Optical Phase Enantiomeric Detector (MOPED), which could help in the search for life beyond Earth by detecting chiral biomarkers. A recent addition to the ASTID program is the development of small astrobiology payloads that can fly on small satellites and lunar missions. These suitcase-sized payloads include missions like the recent O/OREOS satellite in Earth orbit, and can provide significant science return on a relatively small investment.

The new batch of ASTID projects will provide new instruments for studying the surfaces of planets and moons, as well as important information for building on the science returned by past missions like Phoenix and Viking.

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GURILA can achieve measurements similar to those made by the SAM instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled to launch later this year. Image Credit: NASA

Green and UV Raman Imager with Laser-induced Autofluorescence (GURILA): Next Generation Instrument for Mineral-Organic Mapping
Principal Investigator: Rohit Bhartia – Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The GURILA team will be developing a micromapping organic and mineral detection system that will be used to image organics at sub-parts-per-billion sensitivity. The instrument will be a valuable addition to a Mars sample return mission, and future missions to moons, asteroids, and comets, providing astrobiologists with critical new insights into the history and habitability of our solar system’s planets and moons.

GURILA can achieve measurements similar to those made by the SAM instrument on MSL, but will do so in a much smaller, more sensitive package. Without physically handling samples as SAM must do, GURILA will allow scientists to comprehensively study the mineralogy of samples over sample areas of 1 cm2 and then spatially correlate organics to the mineralogy at 50 to 200 um resolution. GURILA will consume on 1/30th the power and 1/10th the mass of SAM alone, making it ideal for ultrasensitive detection and characterization of organics on future in-situ exploration rovers, landers, and sample cache missions.

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The portable Ion-Chromatograph will be useful on space missions and in extreme environments like the Atacama desert (pictured above). Image Credit: Henry Bortman

An Ion-Chromatograh for Extraterrestrial Explorations
Principal Investigator: Purnendu Dasgupta – University of Texas at Arlington

The Ion-Chromatograph (IC) will be capable of answering important questions raised by the Phoenix Mars Lander and Viking Landers concerning martian soil. Phoenix’s analyses returned some astonishing results that have led some scientists to question Viking’s inability to detect organics on Mars in th 1970’s. Phoenix found that the soil contained perchlorate anions; these anions may have oxidized any organics that were present when Viking heated the soil, confounding Viking’s ability to detect them. Perchlorates also raise questions about whether or not liquid water was present on Mars in the planet’s recent history, and their presence could also signify a large reservoir of oxygen that could be easily tapped for use on future missions.

The IC will be a portable, lightweight, capillary-scale ion chromatograph which can be used in a range of applications to detect inorganic ions with high specificity. It will be equipped with capabilities that no commercial instrument can presently provide, and will be field tested in some of the Earth’s most challenging environments, including the Atacama desert and the Antarctic dry valleys. The team will ultimately design an IC suitable for spaceflight. The space-ready version of the IC could be adapted for use on a lander similar to Phoenix, from which techology for a sample handling station is readily available.

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AstroBioNibbler will provide future missions to Mars with important tools for sample extraction and concentration of organic biomarkers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

AstroBioNibbler: Integrated Macroscopic Sample Acquisition and Extraction for Microfluidic Biomarker Detection
Principal Investigator: Frank Grunthaner – Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The AstroBioNibbler will enable sample acquisition, fluid extraction, and examination for biomarkers. AstroBioNibbler could help astrobiologists detect and quantify low levels of organic compounds in samples of soil and regolith from locations such as Mars. While new ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technologies for organic detection are maturing, the technologies for sample handling and extraction are still a long way from being flight ready. To address this weakness, the AstroBioNibbler project will develop an integrated sample acquisition and extraction instrument. An adapted miniature ultrasonic sample drill will provide the sample acquisition step of the system. Samples will then be processed with an extraction technique adapted from microfluidic analytical chemistry. Water will then be added to the fine particulates, and the mixture will pass through a microanalytical lab-on-a-chip.

The compact and lightweight AstroBioNibbler package will provide future missions with important tools for sample extraction and concentration of organic biomarkers to help in the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry or extinct/extant life on Mars and other celestial bodies.

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A flat, calm, liquid methane-ethane lake on Titan is depicted in this artist’s concept. Credit: Copyright 2008 Karl Kofoed

Fiber Optic Probe for Chemical Characterization of Titan’s Lakes
Principal Investigator: Robert Hodyss – Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Characterizing the materials that are dissolved in Titan’s lakes will help astrobiologists answer important questions about the environments present on Titan’s surface and in it’s atmosphere. We still know very little about how Titan’s lakes are affected by processes like erosion, pluvial transport of organics, and the movement of photochemical products between the atmosphere and the lakes. Titan is the only moon in our solar system with a thick atmosphere, and the Cassini mission has revealed it to be a world where active organic chemistry and weather occur.

Because NASA’s next mission to Titan will likely focus on the robotic sampling of surface liquids identified by the Cassini/Huygens mission, the new Fiber Optic Probe will employ absorption and fluorescence spectroscopy to analyze and characterize solutes present in liquid methane/ethane mixtures. Analysis of lake samples can be performed by this system with little or no sample manipulation and preparation, reducing the complexity of operating the mission itself. It will be capable of analyzing the chemical composition of even minor components of Titan’s lakes—all in a rugged, lightweight, and low-power instrument.

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In 2007, Cassini images of Enceladus captured fountain-like sources of a fine spray of material. Credit: CICLOPS

Enceladus Amino Acid Sampler (EAAS): Selective, Solid Phase Amino Acid Preconcentration with Optical Detection
Principal Investigator: James Kirby – Jet Propulsion Laboratory

In addition to the excitement inspired by the hydrocarbon lakes and pre-biotic chemistry apparent on Titan, another of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, whets the astrobiological appetite with its high-powered plumes—jets emanating from the super-heated south polar region of the moon’s surface, spraying icy particles, water vapor, and organic compounds. Ice and other materials from the plumes are the source of Saturn’s E-ring.

The Enceladus Amino Acid Sampler (EAAS) will be able to concentrate amino acids from ice particles in the plumes of Enceladus or from Saturn’s E-ring. It will demonstrate the application of a preconcentration technology that is specific for the amino acid chemical functional group, with demonstrated concentration enhancement factors of greater than 4 orders of magnitude in the liquid phase. EAAS applies commercially available and widely used strong cationic exchange resins combined with optical vibrational spectroscopy (Raman or infrared) to monitor amino acid preconcentration in real time, and demonstrates amino acid preconcentration on a single resin bead (~50 micron diameter) to emphasize the potential for miniaturization of EAAS technology. EAAS will address key, high-level Enceladus science objectives to understand icy world satellite evolution, to determine the plume composition and evolution, and to infer Enceladus’ subsurface composition and habitability.

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Was organic material delivered to the early Earth by comets or asteroids? Image Credit: NASA

Mid-IR Spectroscopy for Small Satellites (MIRSSS)
Principal Investigator: David Summers – NASA Ames Research Center

How did life originate on Earth? Was organic material delivered to the early Earth by comets or asteroids? MIRSSS is a small mid-Infrared telescope/spectrometer that can detect and characterize the delivery and survival of extraterrestrial organic matter into Earth’s atmosphere. It will be designed to fit into a small satellite mission, and will use astronomical sources along a viewing path that grazes the Earth’s atmosphere at the 80 to 100 km altitude region, detecting the presence of delivered organic material by its mid-IR absorbance in molecular bands.

MIRSSS can provide an understanding of the delivery and survival of organics to the Earth that would not be otherwise possible. It can also help us understand how meteoritic organics could be altered to more prebiotically useful forms by providing data that isn’t possible by the study of meteorite and IDPs which have not undergone the ablation encountered by most of the flux, and have not been collected in statically representative numbers.

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The picture was captured by the microscopic imager located on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit’s instrument deployment device, or "arm." The actual size of the patch is a section of the field of view which was 3 centimeters (1.2 inches) across. Credit: NASA/JPL

TextureCam: Onboard Image Analysis for Autonomous Astrobiology Survey
Principal Investigator: David Thompson – Jet Propulsion Laboratory

TextureCam is a visible-wavelength imager with integrated texture analysis hardware. It is a new class of imaging instrument with texture channels that differentiate and map habitat-relevant surfaces. Here the term “texture” is used in the computer vision sense to signify statistical patterns of image pixels. These numerical signatures can automatically distinguish geologically relevant elements such as roughness, pavement coatings, regolith characteristics, sedimentary fabrics, and differential weathering in outcrop. This onboard ‘data understanding’ capability minimizes problems caused by communications delays, blackouts, and narrow bandwidth data transfer, and can benefit science return by summarizing features encountered during travel and directing autonomous instrument deployment for targets of opportunity.

The project will develop reliable automatic recognition of basic geological elements under varying conditions, with a view to producing informative, concise summaries of science observations and guiding spot analyses at sites of detailed study. The instrument will automatically classify relevant morphology and fabrics in Mars Exploration Rover Microscopic Imager (MER MI), Pancam, and Navcam images as well as field samples imaged in laboratory conditions. These experiments will characterize relationships between texture, imaging conditions, and physical surface properties. Field tests in Southern California will employ swappable lenses, permitting TextureCam to be used in macroscopic meter-scale contexts and also as an analog to the MER MI.

Miniature Hyperspectral Laser Spectrometer Probe for Astrobiology Applications
Principal Investigator: Nan Yu – Jet Propulsion Laboratory

This project demonstrates a highly-integrable approach to the revolutionary frequency comb-based Fourier transform (FT) laser spectrometer at mid-IR wavelengths. This hyperspectral laser spectrometer can be extremely compact yet able to simultaneously detect and characterize trace molecules of biological and prebiotic relevance in the range of 2-7um. The key technical basis is a patent-pending approach to the hyperspectral laser spectrometer and the optical frequency comb generation in monolithic mm-size optical resonators without bulky mode-locked lasers. This allows optical sensor heads be integrated into chip-sized sensor probes and offers high sensitivity of typical laser cavity-enhanced spectrometers and broad spectral coverage of conventional FT spectrometers at the same time. This new type of optical probe can be used for in-situ gas sample analysis or planetary atmospheric characterization in searching for molecules and isotopes of astrobiology interest. The research effort will mainly focus on the comb generation, FT signal processing, and characterization of detection sensitivities for various target molecules.