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Life Detection Technologies

An exobiology package should carry: a microscope for general examination of the samples at a resolution of 3µm (plus a close-up camera with 50µm resolution); an infrared Raman spectroscope for identifying mineral and organic molecules, with near-IR excitation for biological and geochemical studies; an alpha-proton-X-ray spectrometer for identifying chemical elements; a Mossbauer spectrometer for measuring iron composition and oxidation states; a pyrolitic gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer for isotopic, elemental, organic and inorganic molecular composition, and chirality measurements; sensors for hydrogen peroxide and other oxidants.

Scientists have not invented a universal life detection machine, primarily because we do not have a universal definition of life. On Earth, we have many systems for detecting even minute amounts of life, but they depend on the specific chemistry of terrestrial life (for example the presence of DNA or RNA). We have no reason to assume that these techniques would detect alien life. One general approach is to look for evidence of chemical disequilibrium as a signature of life, since life on Earth is able to change the chemistry of its surroundings and of the atmosphere itself in ways that are not possible without organic activity. Many astrobiologists are working on this challenge, but we are probably still long way from developing a real life detection machine.

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