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Tuesday’s announcement by NASA of strong evidence for liquid water on the planet’s surface in the past has raised hopes that they may have also been primitive life there. (Indeed, during the press conference one reporter asked the scientists if they believed that they would find evidence for life “in the next few weeks”!) Unfortunately, the Mars Exploration Rovers aren’t equipped with the instruments required to detect past or present microbial life, but future missions will. An article in Nature last week describes efforts to develop a “life chip”: in essence a biochemistry laboratory just ten centimeters across and four millimeters thick. The chip will look for amino acids and determine their chirality. An excess of left-handed (or right-handed) amino acids would be evidence of biological activity. Scientists hope to fly the experiment on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, a rover mission scheduled for launch in 2009, as well as on ESA’s planned ExoMars rover mission, planned for launch around the same time.

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