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According to Caltech researchers, holographic microscopy is our best chance for identifying microbes living in space. In a paper published in a special edition of Astrobiology, Jay Nadeau and team make a case for using the technique to analyze water samples taken from Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.

In general, Enceladus was the focus of the entire Astrobiology special edition because the amount of water on the moon has NASA naming it recently as an ‘ocean world’ and therefore capable of supporting life. The hope is that waters contain verifiable microbes, the challenge is verifying the minute signs of life from a distance of more than 750 million miles.

Due to its unique size and position about Saturn, Enceladus shoots jets of water from deep beneath its frozen surface out into space. In their paper, Nadeau’s team explains how an unmanned spacecraft sent to Enceladus could collect water from one of these jets and put the samples under a microscope.

However, the difficulties don’t end at obtaining a sample of an alien microbe. Once procured it can be troublesome to differentiate a microbe from other minute particles one might find under a microscope. For this task, Nadeau suggests the use of digital holographic microscopy, a special form of microscopic imaging.

Using lasers and detectors, holographic microscopy illuminates material in such a way that a computer can harness the information gathered to create 3-D images that can show details and motion that might be otherwise missed.

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