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NASA Innovator of Year Hunts for Extraterrestrial Amino Acids |

The hunt for the organic molecules that create proteins and enzymes critical for life here on Earth has largely happened in sophisticated terrestrial laboratories equipped with high-tech gadgetry needed to tease out their presence in space rocks and other extraterrestrial samples.

A technologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., now wants to take that search to the sources themselves.

Stephanie Getty, who recently was selected as Goddard’s Innovator of the Year for her trailblazing work in the area of advanced instrumentation, has won $1.2 million from NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development (ASTID) program to advance the Organics Analyzer for Sampling Icy Surfaces (OASIS). This miniaturized liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometer leverages technologies developed under previous Goddard-sponsored research and development efforts to study the chirality, or “handedness,” of amino acids on the icy moons of the outer planets, asteroids, and Kuiper Belt Objects.

"It’s like we’re packing up a well-equipped Earth lab and flying it to an asteroid or another solar system body, where we can get access to a pristine supply of these organic molecules to study," Getty said, adding that by going to the source, scientists reduce the risk of contaminating samples with Earth-borne compounds. "With an instrument like OASIS, we could get that much closer to understanding how organic chemicals formed in the solar system, whether the potential for life exists elsewhere, and what may have seeded life here on Earth."

And OASIS would carry out this science with 100 times greater sensitivity than what was possible with previously flown liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometers, she added. continue reading

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