Zachary Duca Receives 2016 NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship

Ph.D. student’s research will help the search for extraterrestrial life

Zachary Duca, a third-year Ph.D. student in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, has received a NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship to develop an apparatus that would detect life-related organic molecules on Enceladus, an icy moon orbiting Saturn.

Duca’s work supports the Enceladus Organic Analyzer (EOA), an instrument concept in development primarily by the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. “The EOA can directly search for biosignatures, such as amino acid chirality,” Duca says. Chirality is a specific symmetry characteristic of all amino acids that compose life as we know it. Its detection is a strong indication of the presence of life.

The analyzer is designed to be part of a probe that will be sent to fly through hydrothermal plumes ejected hundreds of kilometers into space from the surface of Enceladus. These plumes are thought to contain material from a subsurface ocean on Enceladus, as well as potential signs of life.

Duca’s analyzer will use microcapillary electrophoresis laser-induced fluorescence, a method that is sensitive enough to detect organic material in the hydrothermal plumes at the sub-parts-per-trillion level. “Organic analyses of these plumes could supply new evidence for the potential for life elsewhere in the solar system.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of Duca’s work will be miniaturizing all components of the analyzer to fit into a satellite with dimensions of 10 x 10 x 10 cm—about 5.4 times the volume of a Rubik’s cube. This “CubeSat size” version of EOA technology could enable its wider application. If successful on the icy moon of Saturn, the analyzer could be used on missions to other destinations in the solar system. All it would take to enable operations in other environments, Duca says, is slight alteration in the sample extractor.

“The technology we’re developing at GA Tech is so small and robust that it could go on any mission to Mars, Enceladus, Europa, Titan—even in a kinetic penetrator that must pierce through several meters of a surface that’s as hard as granite,” says Amanda Stockton, an assistant professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Duca’s research advisor. Stockton designs and develops instruments intended to detect life on other planets.

A lifelong engineering and design enthusiast, Duca is often the first stop for answers to engineering questions in the Stockton lab. As an undergrad, he indulged his engineering passion by signing up for robotics competitions and volunteering to help friends with engineering projects. Those experiences made him a good fit for the Stockton lab. His first project was to design and build a rack that could house delicate microdevices. From there, his interest in space science only increased.

NASA selects Space Technology Research Fellows annually to perform innovative research on space technologies that enhance the nation’s science, exploration, and economic future. During the year-long fellowship, Duca will perform his research at Tech and as a visiting technologist at NASA centers around the country, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, in California.

Matt Barr

Science Communications Intern

College of Sciences

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  • Zachary Duca performing field work in Iceland. Photo courtesy of Zachary Duca.

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