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In Situ / Chemical Analysis & Life Detection
Above: Sample Manifold Prototype for Next Generation Life Detection: Custom electronics and monolithic manufacturing techniques allow a drastically reduced system mass/volume and eliminate fluidic connections between elements.

Chemical Analysis & Life Detection

The vision of the engineers and scientists at the Microdevices Laboratory (MDL) working in the area of Chemical Analysis and Life Detection is to pioneer the next generation of spaceflight technologies that are essential in the search for habitable environments and life beyond Earth. These liquid-based chemical analysis technologies would not only enable us to identify life beyond Earth, should we encounter it during missions of exploration, but they would also provide the capability to characterize that life in fundamental chemical terms.

For example, if life exists elsewhere, does it use the same set of “building blocks” that we do, or a completely different one? Is life elsewhere in our Solar System ultimately derived from the same source as our own, or did it originate from an entirely distinct “genesis event”? The portable chemical analysis technology developed at MDL could be used to shed light on these questions, in addition to identifying environments particularly promising for harboring life. Furthermore, these technologies could also find application in environmental monitoring for human spaceflight missions, or in a wide range of other investigations here on Earth in areas such as oceanography, forensics, water monitoring, agriculture, or environmental remediation.

Towards this goal, MDL has developed the Chemical Laptop, the first battery-powered, automated, reprogrammable, portable astrobiology instrument. The Chemical Laptop houses the microfluidics, electronics, and optics needed to perform highly sensitive ME-LIF analysis of organic acids and other organic biomarkers.

In Situ / Chemical Analysis & Life Detection

Products & Processes

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: OWLS Project

OWLS Project

The Ocean Worlds Life Surveyor (OWLS) was the first project funded under the JPL NEXT Program initiated in 2018. The goal of the OWLS Project is to build a field prototype instrument to perform molecular and cellular analyses...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: Biosignatures


While extraterrestrial life may exist, there is no telling what form it will take, or whether it will use the same "alphabet" of biomolecules as life on Earth. To increase the chances of finding evidence for alien lifeforms elsewhere...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: Organic Extraction

Organic Extraction

It has been over 40 years since the Viking missions arrived at Mars and became the first landed missions to search for chemical signs of life on another planet. Along with its famous biology experiments, Viking was also equipped...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: Electrochemical Sensors

Electrochemical Sensors

Measurements of inorganic ions provide important context when searching for organic molecules indicative of life. Inorganic ions help establish the habitability of an environment, i.e. are the physiochemical conditions within...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: Chemical Laptop

Chemical Laptop

A powerful approach in the search for biosignatures on extraterrestrial missions of exploration involves liquid-based chemical analysis on samples acquired from the surface of planetary bodies. The separation techniques...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: Inorg- & Org- anics

Inorg- & Org- anics

MDL researchers have developed analytical methods for simultaneous determination of both organic and inorganic species by capillary electrophoresis coupled to contactless conductivity detection (CE-C4D). This technique...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: CE-MS


An extremely powerful approach in the search for life involves seeking biochemical signatures of life at the molecular level. To date, this search has been hindered by a reliance on gas-phase chromatography methods...

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