Alien-sniffing device takes on mission to detect air pollutants on Earth

A portable device known as the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA), which was developed to sniff out extraterrestrial life on other planets, is taking on a new role in detecting air pollutants on Earth.

Researchers in California have modified the MOA, to enable it to detect polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), potentially carcinogenic molecules from cigarette smoke and wood smoke, volcanic ash, and other sources.

According to scientist Richard A. Mathies and colleagues, current earthbound PAH detection focuses on the cleanup of environmental contamination sites.

On other planets, the concentration of organic PAH molecules can provide valuable insight into environmental conditions and the potential for extraterrestrial life.

But, existing PAH detection methods are slow and costly. Scientists are thus seeking an inexpensive, rapid and nondestructive technique for the measurement of PAH contamination.

The researchers tested samples from Lake Erie and a hydrothermal vent from the Gulf of California, as well as a Martian analogue sample from the Mars-like Atacama Desert, one of the driest spots on earth.

They found that the detection sensitivity of the device was on par with current laboratory methods.

"The method of PAH analysis developed here significantly advances the MOA's capabilities for organic carbon detection and may also prove useful for environmental monitoring," said Mathies.