Chemical Guidebook To Extraterrestrial Life Sought

Would you know extraterrestrial life if you found it? US scientists are working on a chemical guidebook to create a definitive method to determine whether extraterrestrial rocks have ever harbored life.

The NASA Astrobiology Program is supporting the effort with a $900,000 grant. Ultimately, future Mars rovers will be outfitted with a suite of tools that will let these autonomous machines search for life on their own.

The intent is to be able to identify living organisms, DNA fragments or amino acids, and other clues that might point to the existence of life. All organisms change their environment as they breathe and eat. The chemical guidebook will help scientists avoid controversy and argument by agreeing upfront about what constitutes the chemical signs of life.

The need for a chemical guidebook to extraterrestrial life became clear following the debate over whether or not evidence of life was found in a Martian meteorite.


(Were there Martian meteorite fossils?)

These claims are still controversial after years of debate.

The research group will have two new instruments to use in their search for Martian life. A Laser and Optical Chemical Imager (LOCI) combines a laser positioning system with a device known as a Fourier-transform mass spectrometer. The LOCI's laser can blast a rock's surface and lift off a very thin top layer of material as a small gas cloud. Sensors then create spectral images of the cloud, and scientists can decide what the surface layers were made of.

Also, a fuzzy logic computer called the Spectral IDentification Inference Engine (SIDIE) would help the rover use an open-ended reasoning approach that mimics human decision-making.

Science fiction authors have also wrestled with the problem of defining extraterrestrial life. Perhaps the best-known example is Michael Crichton's 1969 book The Andromeda Strain. In the book, a satellite designed to sample the outermost atmosphere in near-space comes back with more than the scientists in the novel bargained for.

Find out more about the guidebook in the press briefing Chemical guidebooks may help Mars rover track extraterrestrial life; read more about the controversy over Martian meteorite fossils.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 4/6/2005)

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