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Javier Gómez-Elvira

Technology for searching life in the Solar System URL:

Technology for the search of life in the Solar System

Within the Solar System, there are several bodies that could hold life in the present, of where life could have occurred in the past. Mars and Europa are two of them. Several missions have reached the first one and it is beginning to be known in detail, while the second one, much more far away, is completely unknown. How can we learn if life exists in these bodies? The only possible way we currently have is reaching them and exploring; either through orbiters, or through surface, airborne, or submarine vehicles; and of course, developing specific instruments. Thus, three development fields are associated with this task: the development of vehicles capable of reaching the bodies to be explored, of exploration vehicles, and of instruments.

The propulsion techniques currently being used in the space missions are a notable restriction for planetary exploration. Not only due to its high cost, but also to the extremely long duration of the voyages. Several alternatives are being evaluated, although are still far away of being able to replace what is currently applied. The exploration vehicles are one of the most critical elements in the search for life. Rovers are currently playing the main role, but the need to explore wider surfaces and complex orography makes it necessary to look for alternatives.

The instrumentation is probably the most key element in all missions, and their success depends on it very much. There are a number of techniques that are starting to be used in this field, some of them classic like infrared spectrometry and mass spectrometry. Others are totally new in the field of space like the Raman spectrometry; also biological techniques are starting to be incorporated such as the protein micro-matrixes or the capillary electrophoresis.

An important point to highlight is what in English is called Planetary Protection, referring to the need to avoid the contamination of the area to be explored by terrestrial components. This implies important restrictions to all the system (vehicle-instrumentation) applied in this exploration.

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