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The most sensitive instrument in the search for life in space comes from Bern

Are we alone in the universe ? The answer to one of humanity’s most fundamental questions may come from ORIGIN, a highly sensitive mass spectrometer developed by researchers at the University of Bern.

Scientific instrument
Close-up of the mass spectrometer ORIGIN inside the test system. Copyright University of Bern

Finding evidence of past or present life beyond the Earth is of great scientific importance for a better understanding of how life emerged and evolved in the universe. For the past four decades, space exploration missions have searched for traces of life in our solar system using highly specialized instruments installed on landing platforms and rovers.

An international group of researchers led by Andreas Riedo and Niels Ligterink at the University of Bern have now developed ORIGIN, a mass spectrometer able to detect and identify the tiniest fragments of life. The new instruments – described in an article recently published on Nature Scientific Reports – outperforms existing space instruments in terms of measurement sensitivity. Various international space agencies have already expressed great interest in ORIGIN for future missions. NASA has invited the Swiss researchers to participate in a test mission in the Arctic.

Ideal conditions for space research

With its long-standing history of pioneering space research, Bern offers optimal conditions for building state-of-the-art space instruments. Since the participation of the University of Bern in the first Apollo mission on the moon in 1969 with the solar wind experiment, numerous instruments have been built in Bern for the large space agencies’ space missions, such as NASA, ESA or Roscosmos. Scientists also benefit greatly from the unique interdisciplinary environment at the University of Bern, where researchers specialized in geology, chemistry, mass spectrometry, or laser physics work side by side with qualified engineers. In addition, the minimal red tape compared to other universities allows for a more effective concentration on science.

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