NASA develops a 'nugget' to search for life in space

Astrobiologists, who search for evidence of life on other planets, may find a proposed Neutron/Gamma ray Geologic Tomography (NUGGET) instrument to be one of the most useful tools in their toolbelt.

As conceived by scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Md., NUGGET would be able to generate three-dimensional images of fossils embedded in an outcrop of rock or beneath the soil of Mars or another planet. Tomography uses radiation or sound waves to look inside objects. NUGGET could help determine if primitive forms of life took root on Mars when the planet was awash in water eons ago.

Similar to seismic tomography used by the oil industry to locate oil reserves beneath Earth's surface, NUGGET would look instead for evidence of primitive algae and bacteria that fossilized along the edges of extinct rivers or oceans. As on Earth, these remains could lie just a few centimeters beneath the surface, compressed between layers of silt. If a mechanical rover that explores planet surfaces were equipped with an instrument like NUGGET -- capable of peering beneath the surface -- then it might be able to reveal evidence of life beyond Earth.

"This is a brand new idea," said Sam Floyd, the principal investigator on the project, funded this year by Goddard's Director's Discretionary Fund. If developed, NUGGET would be able to investigate important biological indicators of life, and quickly and precisely identify areas where scientists might want to take samples of soil or conduct more intensive studies. "It would allow us to do a much faster survey of an area," Floyd said.

The proposed instrument, which could be carried on a rover or a robot lander, is made up of three fundamentally distinct technologies -- a neutron generator, a neutron lens, and a gamma-ray detector.

At the heart of NUGGET is a three-dimensional scanning instrument that beams neutrons into a rock or other object under study. When the nucleus

Contact: Rob Gutro
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

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