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Orbitrap: New alien detector is so small it fits in the hand

For the purpose of discovering alien life, scientists have developed a laser device that can scan distant planets for any signs of habitability. The tiny device, created for NASA space missions, may end up being a game-changer in our search for alien life.

Researchers at the University of Maryland claim that their device, which they describe in the journal Nature Astronomy, is significantly smaller and uses fewer resources than its predecessors while still allowing for in-situ analysis of planetary samples and biological activity. Miniaturized from two separate tools, the equipment weighs in at a hefty 17 kilos.

The pulsed ultraviolet laser can eliminate very small amounts of material. Then, using a scanner called “Orbitrap,” detailed information on their chemistry is provided.

In a statement, Orbitrap’s primary developer, Professor Ricardo Arevalo, noted that the instrument was designed from the start for industrial applications.

In the research facilities of the biomedical, pharmaceutical, and proteomic sectors. They’re extremely massive; the one in my own lab weighs in at 399.8 kilogrammes (just under 400 pounds). It took us eight years to develop a prototype that would work well in space; it’s much more compact and uses fewer materials, but it can perform cutting-edge scientific research.

As a result of the team’s efforts, the Orbitrap has been shrunk and linked to LDMS (laser desorption mass spectrometry). Scanning has not been tried on any planets outside of our solar system.

According to Arevalo, the technology has all the same benefits as its bulkier forebears while being more portable, making it ideal for future space exploration missions and visits to faraway worlds. Due to its small size, light weight, and minimal maintenance requirements, the Orbitrap LDMS sensor may be conveniently transported, installed, and kept operational on the payload of a space probe.

The risk of contamination or damage is also greatly reduced because the analysis of a planet’s surface or substance is much less invasive than existing approaches.

Any substance that can be ionised by the laser can be analysed, Arevalo said.

If we shine our laser beam on a piece of ice, we should be able to analyse its composition and find biosignatures. This method makes it considerably simpler to determine the molecular and chemical structures present in a sample, because to its high precision and mass resolution.

There is a possibility that scientists will get access to larger, more complex molecules that have a higher probability of being associated with life. As an example, amino acids are a good representation of the signature of a more enigmatic living being.

The researcher argued that “amino acids can be synthesised abiotically,” implying that they do not necessarily constitute evidence of life.

Many meteorites are rich in amino acids and can deliver abiotic organics to a planet’s surface. Arevalo stated that scientists now realise that complex compounds like proteins are more likely to have biological origins or ties.

The laser allows us to probe larger, more intricate organic molecules, which can reflect biosignatures with greater precision than simpler compounds.

The compact LDMS Orbitrap will provide crucial insight and flexibility for future investigations of the solar system’s outskirts. The NASA Artemis Program and the Enceladus Orbilander are two examples of such initiatives, with their respective focuses on life detection and lunar surface exploration.