Tiny tool could play a large role in the search for extraterrestrial life

01 March 2023
The compact prototype achieves ultrahigh mass resolution and accuracy. Source: Ricardo Arevalo/University of Maryland

A compact tool has been engineered by an international research team to focus on signs of life on other planets. The prototype laser desorption mass spectrometry (LDMS) instrument is designed to non-invasively identify complex molecules in an analytical footprint just a fraction of the size and weight of available equipment.

The Orbitrap LDMS uses a pulsed ultraviolet laser to ionize small fragments of solid samples. By tightly focusing laser light on the surface of a sample, the tool enables analysis of grains, dust particles and other tiny structures at the micron scale. LDMS also minimizes contact between the instrument and the sample, thereby reducing the chances of sample contamination.

The ions generated are directed to an Orbitrap analyzer in the form of a mass spectrometer that traps the ions in orbits around a spindle-like electrode. The motions of the ions are tracked to provide the information needed to determine ionic mass. The resulting data can then be used to determine the nature of the molecules.

When applied to simulated samples, the system was able to detect target biosignature molecules at appropriate densities for studying the subsurface oceans of Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. The quality of this analysis reported in Nature Astronomy matched the performance of existing commercial systems.

Researchers from the University of Maryland, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, AMU Engineering (Florida). Danell Consulting (North Carolina), Thermo Fisher Scientific (Germany) and Laboratoire de Physique et Chimie de l’Environnement et de l’Espace (France) contributed to this development.

To contact the author of this article, email

Powered by CR4, the Engineering Community

Discussion – 0 comments

By posting a comment you confirm that you have read and accept our Posting Rules and Terms of Use.
Engineering Newsletter Signup
Get the GlobalSpec
Stay up to date on:
Features the top stories, latest news, charts, insights and more on the end-to-end electronics value chain.
Weekly Newsletter
Get news, research, and analysis
on the Electronics industry in your
inbox every week - for FREE
Sign up for our FREE eNewsletter