Urey Life Detector

The Urey: Mars Organic Oxidant Detector has been designed by NASA-funded researchers to look for life on Mars. This "life detector" will check for life's essential molecules at incredibly small concentrations. Urey will also distinguish between amino acids made by biological and non-biological processes.


(Urey: Mars Organic and Oxidant Detector)

The device is named after Harold Urey, who received the 1934 Nobel Prize in chemistry; Dr. Urey is also known for a 1953 experiment with Stanley Miller in which it was shown that a lightning-like discharge in a test tube full of methane, hydrogen, ammonia and water could produce amino acids.

Every form of life on Earth has proteins assembled from chains of amino acids. However, amino acids can be made both by living organisms and by non-biological processes. The presence of amino acids alone do not prove the existence of life.

It turns out that non-biological processes create a 50/50 mix of left- and right-handed versions of the molecules. Living things on Earth, however, make and use left-handed amino acids almost exclusively. Clever Urey the life detector will be looking for the ratio between left- and right-handed molecules.

A Urey component called the micro-capillary electrophoresis unit has the critical job of separating different types of organic compounds from one another for identification, including separation of mirror-image amino acids from each other. "We have essentially put a laboratory onto a single wafer," said Dr. Richard Mathies of the University of California, Berkeley, a Urey co-investigator.

The European Space Agency has chosen Urey to be part of the payload for the ExoMars rover planned for launch in 2013. The rover will grind Martian soil to a fine powder and then deliver it to a suite of instruments, including Urey.

The Urey sensor will remind many people of the long range "sensor scans" on science fiction programs like Star Trek. However, author Frank Herbert thought about the idea a decade earlier in his short story Cease Fire:

The antennae of the Life Detector atop the OP swept back and forth in a rhythmic halfcircle like so many frozen sticks brittle with rime ice...
(Read more about Frank Herbert's )

You might also be interested in this earlier article on life detecting sensors: Zoe Robot To Find Life On Distant Worlds. See also these related stories:

Read a bit more at the Hubo lab website.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 3/13/2007)

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