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A Better Tool to Search for Life on Mars

A new way to move charged particles could mean a better chance of finding life on the red planet.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have developed a way to make mass spectrometers, which are used to detect signs of life in martian soil, more efficient. These instruments work by taking a soil sample and turning it into gas and then ionizing it. The ions are then sent through a channel to be trapped and identified–proteins and amino acids are considered signs of life.

Spectrometers currently use air flow created by pumps, which are heavy and energy intensive, to channel the ions into the trap. If ions hit the walls of the channel they will die. The new technology uses electric fields to guide the ions directly into the trap instead.

“This is a novel way to shape electric fields for moving ions around,” said Tim McJunkin, an engineer at INL, in the press release. Called the total ion control method, the new technology could be used on devices like the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA), which will be part of a Mars mission in 2018. The researchers have been in communications with the MOMA team leader, LuAnn Becker, who is also a scientist at Johns Hopkins University. “This is an enabling technology,” she said in the release. “If you want to move ions around cheaply and robustly, and without much weight, this is the way to do it.”

The device uses only 100 miliwatts of power and during testing was able to guide 10 times as many ions into the trap as commercially available devices. The new method could also be used in instruments that analyze explosives in airports.

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