The search for extraterrestrial life has improved since the discovery of water fountain plumes emanating from icy moons such as Enceladus and Europa. These water jets produce micron and sub-micron ice grains that, according to the Cassini probe contain possible elements indicative of life.
Under prior NASA support, we have discovered that hypervelocity ice grain impacts into aerogel create a rearward ejecta of water vapor through the impact cone into the surrounding vacuum. Ice seeded with organic molecules survives this impact and can be detected in-situ mass spectrometrically. Unpublished work at the Ames vertical gun range has shown that oblique angle impacts with bacteria can allow the bacteria to survive morphologically. The ability to image with a light microscope and/or SEM in-situ aboard a spacecraft passing through an ice plume would complement any molecular indication of life.
There are many possible NASA applications for the proposed technology. Any method of passing through a comet tail or a water fountain plume, or even through an atmosphere would allow biological and particulate species of interest to be captured and preserved safely for a possible return mission. The essentially zero vapor pressure of ionic liquids makes the technique suitable for use in space, as captured species in the IL substrate could not evaporate. ILs are conductive, making them well suited for SEM and TEM in-situ.
Non-NASA applications include the ability to examine the morphological characteristics of pathogens after mass spectral interrogation in a partial-pressure region, something that is not possible with todays MS instrumentation. Other applications include atmospheric analysis of pollutants at high altitude, and for general meteorological study.