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Homochirality as Extraterrestial Life Indicator


Search for Homochirality as a Signature of Extraterrestial Life

Tech Area / Field

  • SAT-EXP/Extraterrestrial Exploration/Space, Aircraft and Surface Transportation
  • INS-DET/Detection Devices/Instrumentation

3 Approved without Funding

Registration date

Leading Institute
FIAN Lebedev, Russia, Moscow

Supporting institutes

  • NPO Lavochkin, Russia, Moscow reg., Khimki\nRussian Academy of Sciences / Space Research Institute, Russia, Moscow\nInstitute of Microbiology, Russia, Moscow\nNIIIT (Pulse Techniques), Russia, Moscow\nMoscow State University, Russia, Moscow


  • Yokohama National University, Japan, Yokohama

Project summary

The search for extra-terrestrial life is one of the most fundamental and most interdisciplinary problems facing science. For many years Mars was widely accepted as one of the most promising sites for extra-terrestrial life, but the 1976 Viking mission failed to resolve the question of life on Mars. Viking's famous Labelled Release (LR) experiment appeared to test positive for life on Mars, but this result was later dismissed because the Viking GC-MS detected no organics. The recent discoveries of possible microfossils in Mars meteorite ALH84001 and life-like isotope ratios in EETA79001 have now re-opened the life on Mars question. Even if the ALH84001 results do not prove to be evidence of life, they certainly demonstrate the presence of organics on Mars. Unfortunately the recent NASA Mars missions could not contribute directly to resolving the life on Mars question because they carried no exobiology experiments. ESA's Mars Express mission is likely to contain at best only a very small exobiology payload. The Russian Mars 2003 mission could fill that gap by providing a dedicated exobiology lander, and unlike other missions it will have the capability of getting up to 3 meters beneath the surface, either with a penetrator or with a deep drill on a rover.

This work forms a central part of the IMAC (International Mars Astrobiology Consortium) program to prepare an instrumentation package for an exobiology lander (either penetrator or rover) for the Russian Mars 2003 mission. IMAC involves several countries, principally Russia, the United Kingdom and Japan. The IMAC exobiology package will look for several different signs of possible Martian biology, past or present, but a key theme will be the search for homochirality, which is a characteristic hallmark of life. No one magic technique can identify life on its own, but finding homochirality in addition to other biotic indicators from the IMAC exobiology package could be conclusive. The eventual aim is to build a small cigar-sized space polarimeter, called the SETH Cigar and a complex of auxiliary apparatus, to detect optical rotation as the homochiral signature of biology. This polarimeter will form a central element of the IMAC exobiology package for Mars 2003. Two alternative designs have been proposed to avoid rotating polarizers in the SETH Cigar: (1) the Bee Cigar, and (2) the Faraday Cigar (or CARP, continuous angle rotation polarimeter). During the two years of this project we aim to:

(1) construct and test the Bee Cigar (which replaces the normal rotating polarizer by multiple fixed polarizers at discrete angles, as in the eye of the honey bee);
(2) construct and test the CARP (which uses the Faraday effect to measure a continuous angle of rotation);
(3) compare the performance and sensitivity of the Bee Cigar and CARP with respect to detection of possible Martian microbiology, extant or fossilized, and select the optimum design;
(4) address the space qualification of the laboratory polarimeter, and prepare a prototype space version in readiness to apply in three years time for further funds to build the flight model;
(5) develop sample preparation systems to (a) obtain a powdered sub-surface sample of Martian soil or rock, (b) prepare a filtered solution of this sample and transfer it to the polarimeter.

Thus the expected result of this project is the construction of the prototype of the polarimeter and associated equipment, which will be elaborated, produced and tested by the participants of this work for the 2003 Mars mission to search the homochirality as a signature of life.

Potential role of foreign collaborators

Work on the project will be carried out in tight collaboration with foreign colleagues from the following institutions:

(a) members of SETH Collaboration (Dr. A. MacDermott from University of Cambridge is the team leader), which includes 9 institutions from United Kingdom (University of Cambridge, University of Glasgow, University of London, RAL, Wake Forest University, Glaxo Wellcome, Oxford University, Howard University, University of Kent), three from USA (NASA, Arizona University, University of Illinois), two from France (CNRS and University of Paris), two from Germany (University of Bremen and University of Leiden), and one from Italy (University of Bologna); and

(b) Japanese exobiological collaboration (Prof. T. Saito from Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, Tokyo University is the team leader) which includes specialists from Obayashi Corporation, Yokohama National University, Mitsubishi Kagaku Institute of Life Science, Tokyo University of Technology, NAL, Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Science and Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, Tokyo University.

The SETH Consortium includes well-known specialists in bio-chirality and exobiology. They will elaborate Bee Cigar construction and create an experimental model, whereas the mock-up of the Cigar polarimeter will be built in Russia. Japanese group includes the most active core of the international exo-biological collaboration “Return-to-Mars-together”, and will participate in testing of the polarimeters.


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