Are we alone in the universe? An answer to that age-old question has seemed tantalizingly within reach since the discovery of ice-encrusted moons in our solar system with potentially habitable subsurface oceans. But looking for evidence of life in a frigid sea hundreds of millions of miles away poses tremendous challenges. The science equipment used must be exquisitely complex yet capable of withstanding intense radiation and cryogenic temperatures. What’s more, the instruments must be able to take diverse, independent, complementary measurements that together could produce scientifically defensible proof of life.
To address some of the difficulties that future life-detection missions might encounter, a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California has developed OWLS, a powerful suite of science instruments unlike any other. Short for Oceans Worlds Life Surveyor, OWLS is designed to ingest and analyze liquid samples. It features eight instruments – all automated – that, in a lab on Earth, would require the work of several dozen people.