A small glass chip that could one day help sniff out the building blocks of life on Mars has successfully detected sparse organic compounds in barren, Mars-like environments on Earth.
In preparation for future robotic missions, scientists tested the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA) with samples collected from two deserts thought to closely match conditions on the Red Planet – the Atacama Desert in Chile and the Panoche Valley in California, US.
The Atacama Desert can go years without rain and its high elevation means it soaks up lots of ultraviolet light. This makes for a highly oxidising environment, similar to that found on Mars.
“It is essentially the most barren place we can find, so if we can detect signs
of life – present or past – in that region, then at least we are certain of the ability of our instrumentation to perform with the same sensitivity on Mars,” says Alison Skelley, at the University of California, Berkeley, US, who led the study.
The briefcase-sized instrument, housing the four-layer glass microdevice, successfully detected amino acids in the range of 10 to 500 parts per billion from soil samples collected in the desert.