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Curated by RSF Research Staff

Space probe may be equipped with holographic imaging to detect alien life

With the remarkable space explorations that have occurred over the past few decades it has become increasingly evident that the solar system’s planetary denizens are dynamic, fascinating worlds. Perhaps one of the most exciting revelations has been the discovery that some of the satellites of the outer planets have subterranean oceans. Because of the apparent centrality of water to life as we know it on Earth, any evidence of liquid water outside of Earth immediately opens the possibility for extant organisms. Analysis has even shown that on at least one of these ice-capped water worlds there is a potential food-source for any would-be organisms.

While some of the key requirements for life as we know it are present on these fascinating worlds, it is more likely than not that they are no-where as hospitable as Earth, which by comparison is a veritable Garden of Eden. As such, if there are living systems inhabiting one of these other worlds the highest probability is that they are simple, unicellular microorganisms like prokaryotes (bacteria and archaea) here on Earth.

Single-celled miroorganisms may not be as exciting as the more complex life forms that undoubtedly exist on some of the other estimated 100 billion planets of the galaxy, but to biologists they are every bit as exciting. Inside any potential extra-terrestrial unicellular microorganism there is an inner-universe to explore. Investigating the molecular biology, genetics, and metabolism of such organisms will reveal entirely new understandings of life: how it arises, what variability exists by which it can arise, and how alien organisms compare to terrestrial life of Earth. These are some of the outstanding big questions of the biological sciences that can begin to be answered by the discovery and analysis of just one extra-terrestrial species.

With the identification of the best potential celestial bodies that may contain living organisms, for example Saturn’s moon Enceladus, the challenge now shifts to how best to identify extant organisms, particularly microbial life. Identifying bacteria is not exactly simple, there are probably a great many species in our daily environment that have gone undetected. The easiest way is often to perform a cell culture – but that only works for microorganisms that can be cultured, and many can't. Then there are microscopy techniques where they can be directly observed, but that often requires complex staining techniques to identify actual microbes.

This is why researchers and engineers at Caltech, led by Jay Nadeau, are designing a probe that will have the capability to scan samples retrieved from the water ejecting plumes of Enceladus with lasers and store the data as a hologram, which can then be decoded into a full 3D image. This is a sophisticated technique known as digital holographic microscopy, and may be the best way to detect extraterrestrial microorganisms.

No probe since NASA's Viking program in the late 1970s has explicitly searched for extraterrestrial life—that is, for actual living organisms. Rather, the focus has been on finding water. Enceladus has a lot of water—an ocean's worth, hidden beneath an icy shell that coats the entire surface. But even if life does exist there in some microbial fashion, the difficulty for scientists on Earth is identifying those microbes from 790 million miles away.

"It's harder to distinguish between a microbe and a speck of dust than you'd think," says Nadeau, research professor of medical engineering and aerospace in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. "You have to differentiate between Brownian motion, which is the random motion of matter, and the intentional, self-directed motion of a living organism."

A particularly important facet of a fully developed unified physics model is the understanding that complexity and synergistic organization emerge naturally in self-organizing systems. This is a result of relatively simple information feedback processes that inform the system and thus narrow the staggering amount of potential random processes and drives the formation of meaningful arrangements and adaptations. From this understanding, it would be expected that living systems should arise with great frequency across stellar systems wherever the conditions are amicable. A process that can be termed: universal biogenesis. In light of this, an important test will be to investigate and identify whether or not any other bodies in the solar system contain life. Mars has always been a good potential candidate, as well as some of the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, such as Europa and Enceladus, which may contain vast subterranean liquid oceans… ---Resonance Science Foundation, December 18, 2016



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