“Spacespresso” Please


The gringa is most definitely a “Trekkie”. No big surprise there, eh? I just love all the gadgets they have on those shows. One of my favorites is the “tri-corder” (which, forever and a day I thought was actually “tri-quarter”). This little doo-dad scanned, analyzed and recorded data. It could detect life forms through a rock wall or diagnose a disease or injury. Well, guess what? NASA may very well be getting some! They’re not called “tri-corder” but, the concept is the same.

This fascinating invention is the brain child of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that’s located in Pasadena, California. It’s small, portable and called a “chemical laptop”. Personally, I think that name has absolutely no imagination and wish they could have come up with something more akin to “tri-corder”, but no one asked me.  If they had I would have called it something like “hand lab” or “Doal” (Detector of alien life) or maybe “Cie” (Coolest invention ever) or, as you will read later and understand, “Spacespresso” (my personal favorite). But, like I said, no one asked me.

This chemical “laptop” is actually not a laptop at all. It’s really a miniature laboratory, about the size of a regular laptop and thicker. The above picture shows the chemical laptop sitting beside a regular laptop, both on top of a rover. The chemical laptop analyzes material samples for signs of life. If it ever makes the grade for an off-world mission it will be an historic moment as being the most sensitive technological device to ever leave planet Earth.

NASA has big dreams of sending it to Mars or Europa. If they get their big chance, instead of using the “laptop” to scan a bit of this or that, it will, gulp, swallow the sample. (The gringa envisions memories of the “Hungry, Hungry, Hippo” game I played as a child.) Once consumed, the laptop can be programmed through various “apps” (we all know what those are!) to test for all sorts of things like amino acids or fatty acids, which are the basic building blocks of life as we know it.

Now, at this turn in the story the gringa gets totally sidetracked with the amino acid thing. As I peruse my research material I scratch my little head and think, “Really? I had no idea!” Taking the risk that my dear reader may already know interesting tidbits about amino acids, I will share what fascinated me so.

Apparently, amino acids are either right-handed or left-handed. In other words, there are two types that are mirror images of each other. The left-handed booger is the standard for life as we know it on Earth. As NASA studies samples, they are looking for samples that are predominantly one or the other. A 50/50 mix is not considered to be a biological form.

The challenge for NASA has been developing a way to look for both types in a single sample. And, VOILA!  The chemical laptop! Now, this little lab needs liquid samples which are not easily found on other planets that are usually colossal frozen rocks in orbit. Now, for you folks that love your espresso machines, you will totally get the technology involved to mix a sample with a bit of water then heat the mix until some of the sample’s organic molecules mix with the water.

When “Spacespresso” then receives the liquid sample it injects a fluorescent dye into it. The sample flows over a microchip that detects which is a leftie or which is a rightie. These pass by a laser and are separated according to leftie or rightie status. Once separated, the lefties and righties are mixed with a chemical that interacts specifically with one or the other. Finally, they emerge into a channel and the scientists can then determine how many lefties and how many righties there are.

Field tests began in 2014, which is the first step to reaching the ultimate goal of getting “Spacespresso” to Mars. The next field test is going to be in the Atacama Desert in Chile. NASA, true to its mission of helping all mankind with its work, is considering how this technology can also be of benefit in the world of medicine and not just their own Mars mission dreams. The gringa waits with bated breath.

Source and Photo credit: http://www.nasa.gov

 

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