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DISCOVER SPACE EXPLORATION

Finding Life:

Almost every probe ever sent into space has been equipped to detect oxygen, liquid water, and organic chemicals–key signs of the potential for life. But unless a large, preferably green alien walks past the camera of an unsuspecting rover, actually finding a pulse out in space will be a difficult proposition. Piloting a robot from millions of miles away is hard enough to begin with. And even if the robot detects an intriguing chemical, how do you tell whether the molecules came from a microbe or from complex but nonbiological chemistry? Right now, you don’t..

Scientists and engineers are working on machines to do the most difficult jobs in space. Here we present the impressive space robot that may soon rewrite our understanding of much of our solar system.

NASA’s current best hope in the E.T. hunt is Curiosity, a $2 billion Mars rover that launches later this year. Curiosity’s ChemCam will fire a laser at rocks up to 30 feet away and analyze the color of the vaporizing mass to determine its chemical composition. Should the ChemCam identify an interesting sample, the whole rover can move in for a closer look, clutching samples with a robotic arm and using a battery of sensors to catalog the chemicals inside them. Looking farther ahead, a team at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital-Harvard is designing an instrument that will be able to scan for alien DNA and RNA. “This experiment would be the first to look for life by targeting the molecules specific to life as we know it,” says Christopher Carr, the lead engineer on the project. If a probe finds something to sequence, that would be almost definitive proof that life took hold on Mars and very likely is thriving there right now. Carr hopes his device will fly on a NASA Mars mission within the next decade.

Since 1995 astronomers have discovered some 550 confirmed planets orbiting other stars. NASA’s Kepler space telescope is in the process of uncovering thousands more, including ones similar to Earth in size and temperature. Before long, people will be clamoring to know what they look like. The only way to find out is to go there. But reaching even the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, within a human lifetime would require a spacecraft capable of cruising at 10,000 miles a second. Voyager 1, the fastest-moving spacecraft, is moving at one-tenth of 1 percent of that speed.

Although NASA canceled its Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project in 2002, engineers are still pushing the limits of speed and range. The New Horizons probe has the most distant target of any space mission ever attempted: everyone’s favorite dwarf planet, Pluto, which it will reach in July 2015. Around the same time, scientists will begin testing a prototype of the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, or VASIMR, which expels searing hot plasma to produce thrust, at the International Space Station. VASIMR will not reach the stars, but it may allow future probes to leave the solar system in years rather than decades. True star travel will probably require technologies like antimatter or nuclear fusion rockets, which are currently not much more than dreams.

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