Artist’s concept of the Curiosity rover examining a rock on Mars with a set of tools at the end of the rover’s arm, which extends about 2 meters (7 feet). Two instruments on the arm can study rocks up close. Also, a drill can collect sample material from inside of rocks and a scoop can pick up samples of soil. The arm can sieve the samples and deliver fine powder to instruments inside the rover for thorough analysis. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The working concept for the AstroBioNibbler’s organic molecule extraction. Water-soil mixture (left-side) flows in parallel with an organic solvent (right-side). Organic molecules in the soil diffuse across the flow boundary and into the organic solvent, where they are tagged by fluorescent markers. Credit: Andrew Aubrey and Frank Grunthaner, JPL

Searching for Organics in a Nibble of Soil

Posted: 02/18/13
Author: Michael Schirber

Summary: An all-in-one chemical analysis instrument — currently under development — could potentially detect a single amino acid in a gram of Martian soil.

You might call it a high-tech panhandler, with its design for sifting through sprinkles of dirt to find tiny specks of organic material. Or you might think of it as a soil-eating-micro-espresso machine that could potentially brew up the smallest hints of martian life.

The instrument is dubbed AstroBioNibbler, or Nibbler for short. Its developers envision it as an end-to-end device (from drilling to extraction to final chemical analysis) that could ride shotgun on some forthcoming rover mission.

“Our intention is to bring traditional analytical chemistry tools to the search for life on Mars,” says Frank Grunthaner an emeritus scientist from JPL who leads the AstroBioNibbler project.

Unlike current and past missions that bake samples in hot ovens to release gases, the Nibbler takes the “espresso approach,” as Grunthaner likes to describe it. This involves dissolving out target molecules using super-heated water.

Liquid-based methods are far more sensitive than gas-based ones, Grunthaner says. The AstroBioNibbler team is promising a rover-compatible device that could detect a single amino acid in a gram (a mere nibble) of soil.

With funding from NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development (ASTID) program, Grunthaner and his colleagues will be testing the components of this “espresso” mechanism, as well as miniaturizing the entire instrument so that it might fit easily on a future Mars mission.

Read more: Searching for Organics in a Nibble of Soil — Astrobiology Magazine.

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