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The question of whether life exists beyond the Earth is one of humanity's most fundamental questions. Future NASA missions, for example, aim to examine the ice moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which may potentially shelter life in the liquid oceans underneath the thick layer of ice, on the ground. Proving traces of life beyond the Earth is extremely challenging, however. Highly sensitive instruments which take measurements on the ground with the greatest possible degree of autonomy and with high precision -- millions of kilometers from the Earth and thus without direct support from humankind -- are required.

An international group of researchers under the leadership of Andreas Riedo and Niels Ligterink at the University of Bern have now developed ORIGIN, a mass spectrometer which can detect and identify the smallest amounts of such traces of life. They describe the instrument in a recently published article in the specialist journal Nature Scientific Reports. Niels Ligterink from the Center for Space and Habitability (CSH) is the lead author of the international study, and co-author Andreas Riedo from the Physics Institute at the University of Bern developed the instrument in the laboratories of the space research and planetary sciences divison of the Physics Institute. Various international space agencies, particularly NASA, have already expressed interest in testing ORIGIN for future missions.

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Category: Science