A laser device that can detect signs of aliens in faraway worlds has been developed by scientists.

The miniaturised machine has been tailored to NASA space missions and could revolutionise the search for extra-terrestrial life.

It is significantly smaller and more resource efficient than its predecessors – without compromising analysis of planetary samples and biological activity onsite.

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Weighing only about 17 pounds, the instrument is a scaled-down combination of two tools.

The pulsed ultraviolet laser removes small amounts of material. A scanner named Orbitrap then delivers high-resolution data about their chemistry.

Lead author Professor Ricardo Arevalo, of Maryland University, said: “The Orbitrap was originally built for commercial use.

“You can find them in the labs of pharmaceutical, medical and proteomic industries. The one in my own lab is just under 400 pounds – so they’re quite large.

“It took us eight years to make a prototype that could be used efficiently in space – significantly smaller and less resource-intensive but still capable of cutting-edge science.”

This technique hasn't yet been applied in an extraterrestrial planetary environment but Prof Arevalo said the device is streamlined for space exploration and onsite planetary material analysis.

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The mini LDMS Orbitrap will offer insight for future ventures into the outer solar system – including those focused on life detection like the Enceladus Orbilander and exploration of the lunar surface like the NASA Artemis Program.

Scientists hope to send it into space and deploy it on a planetary target within a few years.

Prof Arevalo said: "I view this prototype as a pathfinder for other future LDMS and Orbitrap-based instruments.

"Our mini Orbitrap LDMS instrument has the potential to significantly enhance the way we currently study the geochemistry or astrobiology of a planetary surface."

It is described in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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