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NASA scientists have created a tiny chemistry lab MOMA for a rover to discover the signs on Mars of past or present life. “The toaster oven-sized lab, called the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer or MOMA, a joint mission between the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, with a significant contribution to MOMA from NASA”.
It is going to launch to Mars in July 2020.
“The ExoMars Rover’s two-meter deep drill will provide MOMA with unique samples that may contain complex organic compounds preserved from an ancient era, when life might have gotten started on Mars,” said MOMA Project Scientist Will Brinckerhoff of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The MOMA instrument will be capable of discovering a wide variety of organic molecules. Organic compounds are commonly associated with life, although they can be created by non-biological processes as well. To detect these molecules on Mars, the team had to take instruments that would usually occupy a couple of workbenches in a chemistry lab.
“While the instrument is complex, MOMA is built around a single, very small mass spectrometer that separates charged atoms and molecules by mass. The basic process for finding Martian organic compounds can be boiled down to two steps: separate organic molecules from the Martian rocks and sediments and give them an electric charge (ionized) so they can be detected and identified by the mass spectrometer. MOMA has two methods for distinguishing as many different kinds of organic molecules as possible. The first method uses an oven to heat a sample—this baking process vaporizes the organic molecules and sends them to a thin column that separates mixtures of compounds into their individual constituents. The compounds sequentially pass into the mass spectrometer, where they are given an electric charge and sorted by mass using electric fields. Each type of molecule has a set of distinct mass-to-electric-charge ratios. The mass spectrometer instrument uses this pattern called a mass spectrum to identify the molecules” says NASA.
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