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NMSU researchers combine forces, instruments to search for the evidence of life

Researchers at New Mexico State University are opening up new frontiers for understanding the extreme environments in which life on Earth can be found through an interdisciplinary grant - and their aspirations go beyond the surface of the Earth into the sky.

CUTLINE: Nancy McMillan, the academic department head of geological sciences, demonstrates how the LIBS instrument works. (NMSU photo by Audry Olmsted)

Colleagues in the departments of astronomy, electrical and computer engineering and geological sciences have pooled together their expertise to analyze the chemical composition and the structure of minerals using Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy and an Acoustic-Optic Tunable Filter spectrometer. With a $40,000 Interdisciplinary Research Grant from NMSU's Office of the Vice President for Research, they hope to make their instrumentation portable so it can be taken into the field for rapid, accurate analysis.

"Between these two data sets, we have a really powerful way to look at substances," said Nancy McMillan, the academic department head of geological sciences. "We know their structure and we know their chemical compositions, so we can look at changes in structure and changes in chemistry. We hope that by looking at these two things together, we can easily tell the difference between minerals that have been produced by bacteria and those produced inorganically."

A LIBS instrument gathers the chemical composition of an object using a high-powered pulse laser that works in the visible portion of the spectrum, while the AOTF instrument collects reflectance information from a sample, indicative of its molecular structure, using a narrow portion of the spectrum in the near infrared.

There is a LIBS instrument on the Curiosity rover that is currently exploring the surface of Mars.

"LIBS only recently has been recognized as a tool that could be used for planetary science," said Nancy Chanover, an associate professor of astronomy. "The LIBS instrument on Curiosity is the first of its kind that has ever flown to another planet. It is successfully demonstrating that this technique can work in a remote environment, like Mars. We want to continue that technology demonstration to show that it's useful for looking for astrobiology signatures. We think the combination of the LIBS and AOTF technologies together will be a really powerful technique."

The LIBS instrument on Curiosity and the one McMillan's team uses have similarities in functionality. Now, the NMSU researchers are trying to make the AOTF instrument compact and make it and the LIBS more portable so they are not limited to operation on a lab bench, but instead can be operated in remote field sites.

David Voelz, a professor with the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said testing out the instrumentation in extreme environments will help them to modify the portable instruments so they work well in the field.

"Cave walls are in a relatively harsh environment," Voelz said. "The microbes that grow on the walls may be ­- or some remnant of them - might have existed or started existing on some other solar system body. Caves, and places like them, seem pretty inhospitable."

Voelz said the combination of these two instruments hopefully will give them some idea of whether there is life on a surface material, or could have been there in the past.

"The basic question is how did life come about on Earth?" Voelz said. "How does it evolve and did it exist anywhere else in the solar system? That is exactly what the Curiosity rover is doing now. It is checking the same thing on Mars that we are looking at here."

Chanover said the hope is that someday they might be able to use either a combination of these instruments, one or both of these instruments, on a mission to another body in the solar system. By demonstrating that this technology works in remote field environments on Earth, they will be in a better position to pursue much larger research grants for developing flight-ready or flight-capable instrumentation to go on a mission to another solar system body.

"We're delighted to have this grant," Chanover said. "This funding is really going to be critical for enabling us to do field work demonstrations, which is really important in order for us to go after the big NASA grants. We have to show that not only does our instrumentation work in the lab, but it also works out in the field and can be subjected to different environmental conditions."

"This is a perfect example of interdisciplinary research," said McMillan. "My colleagues are great to work with. The whole idea of interdisciplinary research is that we all know a certain portion of the work. None of us can do this project by ourselves. I wouldn't dream of it because I do not have all the expertise. But together, we are like the Three Musketeers of geobiology. It's fantastic!"

"EYE ON RESEARCH" is provided by New Mexico State University. This week's feature was written by Audry Olmsted of University Communications.