From NASA JPL-Caltech: “JPL Developing More Tools to Help Search for Life in Deep Space” 

From NASA JPL-Caltech


Ian J. O’Neill
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Melissa Pamer
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Counterclockwise from top: California’s Mono Lake was the site of a field test for JPL’s Ocean Worlds Life Surveyor. A suite of eight instruments designed to detect life in liquid samples from icy moons, OWLS can autonomously track lifelike movement in water flowing past its microscopes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

A team at the Lab has invented new technologies that could be used by future missions to analyze liquid samples from watery worlds and look for signs of alien life.

Are we alone in the universe? An answer to that age-old question has seemed tantalizingly within reach since the discovery of ice-encrusted moons in our solar system with potentially habitable subsurface oceans. But looking for evidence of life in a frigid sea hundreds of millions of miles away poses tremendous challenges. The science equipment used must be exquisitely complex yet capable of withstanding intense radiation and cryogenic temperatures. What’s more, the instruments must be able to take diverse, independent, complementary measurements that together could produce scientifically defensible proof of life.

To address some of the difficulties that future life-detection missions might encounter, a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California has developed “OWLS”, a powerful suite of science instruments unlike any other. Short for Oceans Worlds Life Surveyor, “OWLS” is designed to ingest and analyze liquid samples. It features eight instruments – all automated – that, in a lab on Earth, would require the work of several dozen people.

JPL’s OWLS combines powerful chemical-analysis instruments that look for the building blocks of life with microscopes that search for cells. This version of OWLS would be miniaturized and customized for use on future missions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

One vision for “OWLS” is to use it to analyze frozen water from a vapor plume erupting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

“How do you take a sprinkling of ice a billion miles from Earth and determine – in the one chance you’ve got, while everyone on Earth is waiting with bated breath – whether there’s evidence of life?” said Peter Willis, the project’s co-principal investigator and science lead. “We wanted to create the most powerful instrument system you could design for that situation to look for both chemical and biological signs of life.”

“OWLS” has been funded by JPL Next, a technology accelerator program run by the Lab’s Office of Space Technology. In June, after a half-decade of work, the project team tested its equipment – currently the size of a few filing cabinets – on the salty waters of Mono Lake in California’s Eastern Sierra. OWLS found chemical and cellular evidence of life, using its built-in software to identify that evidence without human intervention.

“We have demonstrated the first generation of the “OWLS” suite,” Willis said. “The next step is to customize and miniaturize it for specific mission scenarios.”

The science autonomy software on JPL’s OWLS tracks particles as water flows past the microscope, using machine-learning algorithms to look for evidence of lifelike motion. Here, particle tracks that the autonomy believes belong to “motile” organisms are colored magenta.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Challenges, Solutions

A key difficulty the “OWLS” team faced was how to process liquid samples in space. On Earth, scientists can rely on gravity, a reasonable lab temperature, and air pressure to keep samples in place, but those conditions don’t exist on a spacecraft hurtling through the solar system or on the surface of a frozen moon. So the team designed two instruments that can extract a liquid sample and process it in the conditions of space.

Since it is not clear what form life might take on an ocean world, “OWLS” also needed to include the broadest possible array of instruments, capable of measuring a size range from single molecules to microorganisms. To that end, the project joined two subsystems: one that employs a variety of chemical analysis techniques using multiple instruments, and one with several microscopes to examine visual clues.

“OWLS”’ microscope system would be the first in space capable of imaging cells. Developed in conjunction with scientists at Portland State University in Oregon, it combines a digital holographic microscope, which can identify cells and motion throughout the volume of a sample, with two fluorescent imagers, which use dyes to observe chemical content and cellular structures. Together, they provide overlapping views at a resolution of less than a single micron, or about 0.00004 inches.

Dubbed Extant Life Volumetric Imaging System (“ELVIS”), the microscope subsystem has no moving parts – a rarity. And it uses machine-learning algorithms to both home in on lifelike movement and detect objects lit up by fluorescent molecules, whether naturally occurring in living organisms or as added dyes bound to parts of cells.

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack without having to pick up and examine every single piece of hay,” said co-principal investigator Chris Lindensmith, who leads the microscope team. “We’re basically grabbing big armfuls of hay and saying, ‘Oh, there’s needles here, here, and here.’”

To examine much tinier forms of evidence, “OWLS” uses its Organic Capillary Electrophoresis Analysis System (“OCEANS”), which essentially pressure-cooks liquid samples and feeds them to instruments that search for the chemical building blocks of life: all varieties of amino acids, as well as fatty acids and organic compounds. The system is so sensitive, it can even detect unknown forms of carbon. Willis, who led development of “OCEANS”, compares it to a shark that can smell just one molecule of blood in a billion molecules of water – and also tell the blood type. It would be only the second instrument system to perform liquid chemical analysis in space, after the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (“MECA”) instrument on NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander.

“OCEANS’ uses a technique called capillary electrophoresis – basically, running an electric current through a sample to separate it into its components. The sample is then routed to three types of detectors, including a mass spectrometer, the most powerful tool for identifying organic compounds.

Sending It Home

These subsystems produce massive amounts of data, just an estimated 0.0001% of which could be sent back to faraway Earth because of data transmission rates that are more limited than dial-up internet from the 1980s. So “OWLS” has been designed with what’s called “onboard science instrument autonomy.” Using algorithms, computers would analyze, summarize, prioritize, and select only the most interesting data to be sent home while also offering a “manifest” of information still on board.

“We’re starting to ask questions now that necessitate more sophisticated instruments,” said Lukas Mandrake, the project’s instrument autonomy system engineer. “Are some of these other planets habitable? Is there defensible scientific evidence for life rather than a hint that it might be there? That requires instruments that take a lot of data, and that’s what “OWLS” and its science autonomy is set up to accomplish.”

For more about JPL’s “OWLS” project, go to:

See the full article here .


Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

Stem Education Coalition

NASA JPL-Caltech Campus

NASA JPL-Caltech is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge, on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

NASA Deep Space Network. Credit: NASA.

NASA Deep Space Network Station 56 Madrid Spain added in early 2021.

NASA Deep Space Network Station 14 at Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California

NASA Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, AU, Deep Space Network. Credit: NASA

NASA Deep Space Network Madrid Spain. Credit: NASA.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs.] NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the[JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.