The Microscope That Wants To See Europa
Popular Science|Fall 2018

The microscope that could look for life on Jupiter’s moon.

Sarah Scoles

Earth, far off now, looks like an unpopulated set of continents surrounded by empty ocean. You’d never know that all kinds of life—from staph to elephants to humans—move all over its surface. I just spent two years in a wide orbit around the blue marble, the first step in a circui­ tous journey toward Jupiter. We circled around the globe in this Space Launch System cargo cap­ sule until our position was just right for Earth’s gravity to fling us toward the Jovian planet.

That isn’t meant to be my new homestead, though. I’m headed for Europa, a smaller sphere. Its exterior is sheathed in a miles-thick layer of ice. But underneath, enwombed like I am in this lander, there might be an ocean. Scientists say that with its water and its chemistry, it could be the place in the solar system (besides Earth) most likely to have life. Other spacecraft carrying other instruments have floated past it: Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo (great names, right?). Looking down with their farsighted cameras, they didn’t see any beings waving white flags. In fact, no human-made device has ever spotted definitive signs of alien existence. But maybe they simply didn’t—or couldn’t—look close enough.

I can. Hello, I’m Shamu. (Isn’t that another great name?) Seeing things close up is my raison d’être. I’ll land on Europa’s icy surface and a drill will cut down into the moon. I’ll suck up its liquid essence and spy magnified details that no one has seen before. Maybe my view will show only water, neat, no microbes. But maybe not.

Although willing and able to travel, Shamu—formally named the Submersible Holographic Astrobiology Microscope with Ultraresolution—is still very much on Earth, in a basement lab of the Science, Research and Teaching Center at Portland State University, where science writers can meet it. A rugged field instrument, Shamu uses lasers to create 3D movies of microorganisms moving in a liquid sample. While similar tools exist, the ones that boast high definition are too delicate to take into the wilderness, and the tough ones aren’t precise enough to see small bacteria. Shamu’s fans, meanwhile, think it’s well-suited to investigate not just weird life in Earth’s extreme environments, but also whether there is life beyond our planet.

Shamu occupies a small space in the lab of scientist Jay Nadeau. One Friday in March, Nadeau is at work, leaning against a high rolling chair with two sweaters swung on its back. She wears another sweater (it’s the Pacific Northwest, after all), featuring a set of alpacas marching around her torso. There’s a Ridley road bike she uses for commuting stashed against the wall, and a helmet next to a CPU. Nadeau is small in all dimensions, and intense, with short curls springing from her head. She walks past the wet-lab benches, to a back room where a graduate student sits at a computer and mostly ignores her.

There, Nadeau puts her hand against a mesh cage a few feet by a few feet. Inside sits a squirt bottle filled with 70 percent sterilizing ethanol solution, a roll of orange tape, and a Thorlabs temperature controller that resembles a cassette deck. But the primary occupant is a mysterious tube-like object, about 2 feet long and as wide as a wine bottle, bolted to a silver beam attached to the bottom of the cage.

This, Nadeau says, is “The Microscope.”

To be honest, Shamu looks pretty unassuming—like a toy spy glass.

And the team Nadeau works with has created even simpler-looking versions. “We’ve made one that would fit inside a soda can,” she says, “with electronics the size of a few packs of cards.” For now, Shamu is grounded, relegated to looking at ice-cold water from Earth’s Arctic regions, super-salty desert water, and the wiggling extremophiles unlucky enough to be trapped there. Someday, though, Nadeau hopes it might get a peek at Europan liquid.

Shifting her view from one place to another is nothing new for Nadeau. She got her doctorate in theoretical physics and moved into the life sciences at Caltech after that. When she walked into her first biology lab, the newness was almost overwhelming. “Everything looks like vials of clear liquid,” she says. The first time another lab sent her a DNA sample, she couldn’t find the genes. They had sent her an almost-empty envelope. “There was nothing inside it except a pencil circle with a couple of notes on it and a piece of filter paper,” she says. The DNA, of course, was on the paper, and she had to soak it to coax the sample into solution.

Thrown into the chilly deep end, she eventually learned what she was doing and moved her research to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she stuffed microbes with luminescent nanoparticles that stuck to different chemicals, allowing Nadeau to track them. JPL was interested in how to obtain information about life on other planets. That quest starts with understanding life on Earth. And so Nadeau became part astrobiologist, and eventually a biomedical engineering professor at McGill University in Canada.

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