System Developed By HMC Students Could Find Extraterrestrial Life

Two Harvey Mudd College students developed a method of detecting life last summer that could one day be used to find living organisms on other planets. A grant proposal for futher development and attachment of the system to a rover has been submitted to NASA. The students and their mentors hope that, one day, the system could make it to Mars.    

Physics major Alex Hall HM’ 12 and engineering major Steven Hang HM’ 13 worked with Professor of Physics Greg Lyzenga and Mike Storrie-Lombardi, M.D., Executive Director of the Pasadena-based Kinohi Institute, to build a prototype over the summer.     

The system uses lasers to detect specific molecules through a process known as spectroscopy. As a laser bounces off a sample, it emits different colors depending on the types of molecules it hits. The system records the colors it sees, and scientists can use the information to figure out whether the sample contains living organisms.    

“People who are skilled in the field can look at these plots and immediately go, ‘Oh, I see this, and that corresponds to this molecule, and I know that this is covered in microbes,’ ” Hall said. 

Hall was attracted to the project because of its combination of biology and physics, and because it had potential to travel to other planets, he said.      

“Life in space,” he said. “That’s cool, right off the bat.”    

Lyzenga praised the project as a unique opportunity to involve undergraduates in cutting-edge science, and said he wants to continue developing the project.    

“We would like to get a succession of projects that will eventually send students to interesting places,” he said. “Send them out to the desert, send them to ice caves in Austria, send them to various interesting areas and perhaps someday put an instrument like this on a spacecraft going to Mars.”

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