Is there Extraterrestrial Life in Our Own Solar System?

Last week, America’s NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Agency) made an exciting announcement: they have detected environments on two planetary moons that could be incubators for extraterrestrial life.

The two planets are Enceladus (a moon of Saturn being explored by the Cassini spacecraft) and Europa (a moon of Jupiter being explored by the Hubble Space Telescope).  Scientists say that conditions there may be similar to those of prehistoric Earth when life first began.

According to NASA, “Life as we know it requires three primary ingredients: liquid water; a source of energy for metabolism; and the right chemical ingredients.”  For the first time, scientists have detected hydrogen in water plumes rising from both Enceladus and Europa.  Hydrogen gas is a chemical energy source, meaning that almost all ingredients for life may exist on these two moons.  This discovery will help guide NASA’s future space exploration missions.

There are a couple of points to keep in mind.

First, actual samples cannot physically be returned to Earth.  Instead, spacecraft instruments capture data and send them back to us.  In Earth laboratories, scientists use these data to recreate outer space conditions and conduct “what if” experiments.

Second, space missions take years to plan and execute.  Cassini left Earth back in 1997 and entered orbit around Saturn in 2004.  It is currently in the final phase of its mission, as its resources are nearly exhausted.

This brings me to how Agilent is involved.

To the first point, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory working with NASA recreated conditions in the surface ice of Europa, to see whether amino acids could survive in such an environment.  They concluded that due to decomposition from ultraviolet exposure, these building blocks of life would lose half their concentration every 10 years.

The researchers used an Agilent HPLC coupled with a fluorescence detector to determine the amino acid concentrations.

To the second point, JPL also helped develop instrumentation modules for outer planetary exploration.  “While exploration of inner planets (Mars, Venus and Mercury) is already challenging, exploration of the outer planets is even more difficult as the distances from Earth are tremendous and travel times can be in excess of 5 years!”  (IEEE)

These modules needed low-power operation, a small form factor and demanding payload requirements.  The researchers used (then) Agilent power meters and spectrum analyzers in their development work.

Remember how I said these missions take time?  In the intervening years, Agilent has since spun these product lines off into a separate company, Keysight Technologies!


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