Team Develops More Tools to Help Search For Life in Deep Space

Photos from OWLS.

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. (Image: JPL-Caltech via NASA)

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 in deep space poses tremendous challenges.

The science equipment 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 could produce scientifically defensible proof of life.

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Receive selected content straight into your inbox.

The 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.
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. (Image: JPL-Caltech via NASA)

OWLS to look for life in deep space

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. One vision for OWLS is to use it to analyze frozen water from a vapor plume erupting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Peter Willis, the project’s co-principal investigator, and science lead said:

“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? So 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.”

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. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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; Willis said:

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

Challenges, solutions

A fundamental difficulty the OWLS team faced was how to process liquid samples in space. Scientists can rely on gravity, a reasonable lab temperature, and air pressure on Earth to keep samples in place. Still, 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 to extract a liquid sample and process it in space conditions.

Since it’s 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 various chemical analysis techniques using multiple instruments and one with several microscopes to examine visual clues.

Water, ice, and vapor are spraying from Saturn’s frozen moon Enceladus, which hosts a hidden subsurface ocean, in this image captured by NASA’s Cassini mission during a 2010 flyby. OWLS is designed to ingest and analyze liquid samples from such plumes.
Water, ice, and vapor are spraying from Saturn’s frozen moon Enceladus, which hosts a hidden subsurface ocean, in this image captured by NASA’s Cassini mission during a 2010 flyby. OWLS is designed to ingest and analyze liquid samples from such plumes. (Image: JPL / Space Science Institute via NASA)

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 less than a single micron resolution, 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 hone 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.

Co-principal investigator Chris Lindensmith, who leads the microscope team, said:

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack without having to pick up and examine every single piece of hay. We’re grabbing big armfuls of hay and saying, ‘Oh, there’s needles here, here, and here.’”

To examine much tinier 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 the 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 capillary electrophoresis technique, 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 data transmission rates are more limited than dial-up internet from the 1980s. So OWLS has been designed with “onboard science instrument autonomy.”

Using algorithms, computers would analyze, summarize, prioritize, and select only the most interesting data to be sent home while offering a “manifest” of information still on board. Lukas Mandrake, the project’s instrument autonomy system engineer, said:

“We’re starting to ask questions now that necessitate more sophisticated instruments. For example, are some of these other planets habitable? Is there defensible scientific evidence for life rather than hinting that it might exist? That requires instruments that take a lot of data, and that’s what OWLS and its science autonomy are set up to accomplish.”

Provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

Follow us on TwitterFacebook, or Pinterest

Recommended Stories

A closeup view of jail cell iron bars casting shadows on the prison floor.

Successful Entrepreneurs in China Lose Everything Overnight on Trumped-Up Charges (Part 2)

Mr. Yang said persecuted entrepreneurs like him are too numerous in his home province and ...

Mr. Yang.

Successful Entrepreneurs in China Lose Everything on Trumped-Up Charges (Part 1)

Mr. Yang, one of China’s highly successful entrepreneurs now living in exile, recounted how he ...


Besenwirtschaften Explained: Learn More About the Broomstick Inns

Many cultures have their unique seasonal practices, and among these are the Besenwirtschaften. While the ...

Double rainbow over a field of yellow flowers with a tree in the background.

The Power of Emotional Healing in Traditional Chinese Medicine

“The heart’s ailment requires the heart’s remedy,” remarked Zhang Jingyue, a renowned physician from the ...

Sad girl sitting alone.

6 Tips for Successful Emotional Healing

There can be times when you experience some intense emotional pain or trauma that has ...

Engraved illustration of men surrounding Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed.

The Mystery of Spirit Photography: The Lincoln Photo and Beyond

Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of American President Abraham Lincoln, had her photo taken in 1872. ...

A dozer in a landfill.

Uncovering the True Cost of Fast Fashion: Where Do Recycled Clothes Really End Up?

The fashion industry is one of the most lucrative industries in the world. It produces ...

A woman carrying fast fashion items.

Why You Should Start Ditching Fast Fashion

As societies have become prosperous, human consumption has greatly increased as well. This is pretty ...

Vintage open chest, coins on a wooden table, and a bright light from inside the chest.

Wealth and Fate: The Salt Merchant’s Ambitious Son

Some individuals amass immense wealth through hard work, talent, opportune moments, or chance. Yet while ...

Send this to a friend