NASA To Search For Alien Life in the Solar System With OWLS

The "Ocean Worlds Life Surveyor" will be NASA's next mission that will visit moons such as Enceladus and analyze whether there is life there.


The universe is a vast and massive place, and humanity is in very baby steps in exploring it. Nonetheless, we are making progress, and the first thing we need to do is explore our solar system. There are plenty of places, both planets and moons, not that far from Earth that have the potential to host life as we know it. This life does not have to be intelligent life and could come in various forms such as bacteria — microorganisms.

The question of whether we are alone in the universe is one that has lingered in history for centuries, perhaps, and the answer may lay far closer to us than we have ever imagined, especially after finding ice-encrusted moons in our solar system with potentially habitable subsurface oceans. There are tremendous challenges to finding life hundreds of millions of miles away in a frigid alien sea. It is imperative that the scientific equipment used can withstand intense radiation and cryogenic temperatures while being extremely complex. It is also essential that the instruments can take diverse, independent, complementary measurements that, when combined, may provide scientifically defensible proof of life.

In order to overcome some of the challenges that future life-detection missions may encounter, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California has developed OWLS, an innovative collection of science instruments unlike any other. OWLS stands for Ocean Worlds Life Surveyor, and it is literally designed and built to ingest and analyze liquid samples. OWLS features eight instruments that are included-all automated-that would require several dozen people to operate in a lab on Earth. For example, OWLS could analyze frozen water from Enceladus’ vapor plume, which erupts from a very interesting Saturnian moon.


A billion miles from Earth, how can you determine whether life exists in a sprinkling of ice while everyone on Earth waits with bated breath?” asked Peter Willis, the project’s co-principal investigator and lead scientist. To find both chemical and biological signs of life, we wanted to design the most powerful instrument system we could, the researchers revealed.

Liquid samples in space were a major challenge for the OWLS team. A spacecraft hurtling through the solar system or on the surface of a frozen moon isn’t able to rely on gravity, a reasonable lab temperature, and air pressure to keep samples in place. Consequently, the team developed two instruments to extract liquid samples and process them in space. In order to be able to measure a wide range of sizes, from single molecules to microorganisms, OWLS also needed to include the broadest possible array of instruments since it is unclear what form life might take in an ocean world. To achieve this objective, the project combined two subsystems: one using a variety of chemical analysis techniques and the other with several microscopes to examine visual clues.

This microscope system would be the first in space to be capable of imaging cells. Portland State University scientists designed it in collaboration with them, combining a digital holographic microscope that can identify cells and motion throughout a sample volume with fluorescent imagers that can observe chemical content and cellular structure using dyes. With a resolution of just a micron or about 0.00004 inches, they provide overlapping views. ELVIS stands for Extant Life Volumetric Imaging System (ELVIS), a microscope subsystem that does not have any moving parts. By analyzing the movement of living organisms and detecting fluorescent molecules, whether naturally occurring in them or added dyes bind to parts of them, machine-learning algorithms can be used to identify lifelike movements and detect fluorescent objects.


OWLS uses its Organic Capillary Electrophoresis Analysis System (OCEANS) to examine much tinier forms of evidence, which basically boils liquid samples and feeds them into instruments to analyze their chemical composition. The OWLS was designed to provide “onboard science instrument autonomy.” By using algorithms, the computers would analyze, summarize, prioritize, and select only the best data for home while providing a “manifest” of information still on board.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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