A microwave oven-sized chemistry lab will be installed on the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover to analyse the first ever samples from under the red planet’s surface.

The Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA) instrument combines a tiny gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer with an oven and a laser that can be used to vaporise the organic molecules in samples. The equipment, which would normally take up a couple of benches worth of lab space, has been shrunk down significantly so that it can be carried on the rover, which will be equipped with a two metre long drill to collect material from beneath the surface.

moma closeup

Source: © NASA

A close-up of the MOMA organic chemistry lab created by Nasa

Previous missions have uncovered evidence that Mars could once have been more hospitable to life, including indications of surface water, and ExoMars will be searching for any signs of past life. MOMA will be able to identify organic molecules and detect their chirality, which can indicate whether or not they were produced through biological processes.

The instrument has now been sent to Italy so that it can be integrated into ExoMars’s analytical laboratory drawer. The rover is scheduled to launch in July 2020 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.