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More Star Trek tech comes to life

In a bit of news that sounds right out of Star Trek, scientists at Oregon State University and University College London have devised an ultraviolet scanner that can identify organic matter in soils.

The ultraviolet light reacts with chemical compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are considered candidates for being one of the earliest forms of organic matter in the universe. PAHs are found on comets and meteorites, which has long fueled the theory that life on Earth actually came from space.

The researchers suggested using such an instrument on a Mars lander or rover to search for life. There are scheduled missions in 2009 and 2013, both of which are intended to search for life and habitability.

In their experiment, the scientists created a fine, dusty soil similar to the Martian surface, infused some PAHs in microscopic amounts, and scanned it with different color filters from a panoramic camera. The devices were able to identify as little as 1.5 micrograms of the organic material and pinpoint different PAHs by variations in their fluorescent response.

The trick now is to make the cameras light and tough enough to survive a trip through space and landing on the surface, not to mention survive for any length of time on Mars. Then maybe something handheld, like the old Star Trek tricorders.

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The Phoenix lander, which recently arrived on the Red Planet, has already located ice, and ice is considered an ideal indicator that there could be such PAH microbes. If there was previously running water on Mars, then areas with water would be likely to hold some microbial life forms.

However, it will likely be at least five years before this bio-scanner is ready for a trip into space, according to one of the scientists on the project.

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