Image: BIOPAN compartment
European Space Agency  /  European Space Agency
The BIOPAN compartment, shown here, is designed to carry out experiments requiring direct exposure to the harsh environment of space. The European Space Agency's "Life Marker Chip" is one of 10 different experiments that will test biological experiments in space.
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updated 9/18/2007 8:39:17 PM ET 2007-09-19T00:39:17

A new experiment similar to a pregnancy test but designed to search for signs of life on Mars is now exposed to the vacuum of space above Earth.

The European Space Agency's postage-stamp-sized experiment, called the "Life Marker Chip," was launched last week aboard a Russian rocket launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. Strapped to the ESA's large Foton-M3 capsule, the tiny experiment harbors more than 2,000 life-detecting samples that glow if they encounter life-critical compounds, such as proteins or DNA.

Scientists and engineers hope the life-sensing chip can remain viable in the harsh radiation, temperatures and vacuum of space during a trip to Mars.

"This will be the first time that these types of materials will have flown unprotected in space in a manner similar to a flight to Mars," said Andrew Steele, a molecular biologist at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C.

The LMC experiment works like a pregnancy test, which uses color-changing chemicals to pick up traces of hormones found in greater numbers after conception. Scientists will examine the LMC's samples once the Foton-M3 mission returns to Earth on Sept. 25 near the Russia-Kazakhstan border.

Ten mysteries of the mindThe experiment's managers ultimately hope to strap their fully tested device aboard the ESA's "ExoMars" robotic rover mission, planned for launch in 2013, where it would serve as a tiny "lab-on-a-chip" to detect traces of past or present martian life.

"This mission will be an important stepping stone in our ultimate goal of putting a LMC experiment on the surface of Mars and using it to search for evidence of life," said Mark Sims, an LMC mission manager at University of Leicester in the U.K.

The LMC experiment is one of nine others found in the cylindrical "BIOPAN-6" compartment bolted to the outside of the Foton-M3 capsule. When the satellite reached a stable orbit on Friday, BIOPAN-6 opened its hatch to begin exposing the 10 experiments to space for 12 days.

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