Magazine article USA TODAY

Analyzing Chemical Samples from Space

Magazine article USA TODAY

Analyzing Chemical Samples from Space

Article excerpt

A new test case that could be used for evaluating extraterrestrial samples for evidence of life has been identified by chemical engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta. It ultimately may allow the use of simpler analytical instrumentation on future space missions.

In the search for life on other planets, astrobiologists regard liquid water and chiral biomolecules to be critical components. "Yet, because chiral molecules can be made synthetically as well as biologically, it's not enough to just find them on other planets. We need to show a change of chirality over time," states Tracey Thaler, a graduate student at the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Thaler has investigated racemization--the conversion of an optically active compound to a racemic form, which has no optical rotation--as a new approach for analyzing samples in outer space. "Because this type of reaction is found only in biological systems, it could serve as a marker for extraterrestrial life," Thaler explains.

Chromatography, the current method used to evaluate extraterrestrial samples on space missions, is a tedious process. …

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