MIT develops a spectroscopic technique to detect Martian life

A novel interpretation of Raman spectra will help the 2020 Mars rover select rocks to study for signs of life.

Created On: Sep 21, 2016 14:17 ISTModified On: Sep 21, 2016 14:24 IST

Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) US have developed a spectroscopic technique that would help the 2020 Mars Rover to non-invasively identify sediments that are relatively unaltered, and maintain much of their original composition.

Such pristine samples will allow scientists to identify the signs of former life, if they existed, on the red planet. 

The new technique is based on an improved way of interpreting the results of Raman spectroscopy, a common, non-destructive process used by geologists to identify the chemical composition of ancient rocks.

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Raman spectroscopy

• It is a common, non-destructive process that geologists use to identify the chemical composition of ancient rocks.

• It is used to identify whether a sample contain carbonaceous matter.

• The presence of carbonaceous matter suggests that the sample may also have harbors sign of life.

• With the new improve spectroscopy techniques; researchers can now also estimate the ratio of hydrogen to carbon atoms in a sample.

• Hydrogen can be used as basis to determine if a certain sample is pristine or not.

• If the sample has low hydrogen, it is possible that it has experience more heating, altering its organic matter and losing hydrogen in a form of methane.
Besides, the 2020 Mars Rover would be equipped with several scientific tools including Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC). SHERLOC is an instrument that will acquire Raman spectra from samples on or just below the Martian surface. SHERLOC will be pivotal in determining whether life ever existed on Mars.

Development of the technique at MIT was reported in the journal Carbon.

2020 Mars Rover

NASA has plans to launch a new Mars rover that will be tasked to probe the region on the planet believed to hold remnants of ancient microbial life. The rover will collect samples of rocks and soil, and store them on the Martian surface.

The collected samples would be returned to Earth sometime in the distant future so that scientists can meticulously analyze the samples for signs of present or former extraterrestrial life.

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