[Worldkings] Top 50 Universities with Innovative Research (P. 41) University of Maryland (USA): Successfully designed a new tiny laser in the hunt for alien life


(Worldkings.org) A team led by the University of Maryland created a miniature analyzer that could fundamentally alter how distant moons and planets are investigated for signs of life.

Under the direction of the University of Maryland, a group of researchers made a new instrument for NASA space missions as part of the study. Their small, laser-powered analyzer can still look at samples of a planet's material and possible signs of life on the spot. At the same time, it is substantially smaller and more resource-efficient than its predecessors.

The instrument, which weighs only about 17 pounds (7.7 kg), is a scaled-down version of two important tools for finding signs of life and figuring out what materials are made of: a pulsed ultraviolet laser that removes tiny amounts of material from a planetary sample and an Orbitrap analyzer that gives high-resolution information about the chemistry of the materials being looked at.

“The Orbitrap was originally built for commercial use,” explained Ricardo Arevalo, lead author of the paper and an associate professor of geology at UMD.


“You can find them in the labs of pharmaceutical, medical and proteomic industries. The one in my own lab is just under 400 pounds, so they’re quite large, and it took us eight years to make a prototype that could be used efficiently in space—significantly smaller and less resource-intensive but still capable of cutting-edge science,” he added.

Researchers made a new device smaller than the original Orbitrap and combined it with laser desorption mass spectrometry (LDMS). This technique has never been used on a planet outside of Earth.

Arevalo says the new device has the same benefits as its bigger predecessors. Still, it is smaller, so it can be used for space exploration and studying planetary materials right on the planet.


Due to its small size and low power needs, the Orbitrap LDMS instrument is easy to pack away and keep running on space missions. The instrument's studies of a planet's surface or material are much less invasive than many current methods that identify unknown substances. This makes it much less likely that a sample will be contaminated or damaged.

"The good thing about a laser source is that anything that can be ionized can be analyzed. If we shoot our laser beam at an ice sample, we should be able to characterize the composition of the ice and see biosignatures in it," Arevalo said in a press release statement.

"This tool has such a high mass resolution and accuracy that any molecular or chemical structures in a sample become much more identifiable."

The small LDMS Orbitrap's laser component also gives researchers access to bigger, more complex compounds that are more likely to be linked to biology.

The team claims that the tiny LDMS Orbitrap will provide crucial knowledge and adaptability for upcoming explorations into the outer solar system, including missions with goals of life detection and lunar surface investigation, such as the NASA Artemis Program.

They intend to launch their device into orbit and set it up on an interesting planetary target within the next few years.


According to interestingengineering.com & techtimes.com

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