But looking directly for life on another planet isn’t easy. And the major challenge here is to develop a machine and a protocol that can effectively replicate what scientists do here on Earth. Floyd believes that a technique called fluorescent in situ hybridization is the best option for this project, and she’s working on automating that process.
When a scientist uses this particular technique, they have to put a sample of something on a slide, treat the cells of that sample to make them permeable, add a molecular probe that will attach to certain sequences of DNA or RNA in the cell, heat the sample and then look at it under a microscope. And those are just the main steps — there are a number of others in this process. “I’m trying to determine whether I can do the same thing with a robot,” said Floyd.
If such a robot can be engineered, NASA could then send it on its own or as part of a rover to another planet or moon in our solar system. It may seem like a tall order, but it could give scientists another powerful tool with which to search for extraterrestrial life. Floyd notes that her assumption about how life formed elsewhere in our solar system could be wrong. “But how do we know,” she asked. “We’ve never looked.”