The goal of the 2007 Phoenix Mars Lander Wet Chemistry Laboratory (WCL) was to analyze the aqueous geochemistry of the soils in order to better understand the history of the water, biohabitability of the soil, availability of chemical energy sources, and the general geochemistry of the site. The results of the Phoenix WCL analyses [1-4] clearly showed that a fundamental understanding of the present habitability of any planetary body cannot be adequately made without direct knowledge of its aqueous geochemistry. By identifying a concentration of high perchlorate (ClO4-) in the soil WCL helped explain the inability of several Mars missions to detect organics in the martian regolith, and generated a variety of hypotheses with implications for its geochemistry, habitability, and potential for supporting microbial life [5-6].
Determining the composition and properties of soluble species entrapped in the plume ejecta of Enceladus or surface ice on Europa is equivalent to the initial mineralogy studies that were performed on the surface materials of Mars. Evidence that these icy moons possess a subsurface liquid ocean in contact with a rocky core [7-8], directly impacts the hypothesis that they may be habitable and may support life . Dissolved salts as measured by WCL provide the strongest evidence for the types of water-rock interactions that are frequently invoked as necessary for habitability, and thus crucial for providing context for molecular biosignatures. Finding that subsurface oceans on Enceladus or Europa contain habitable environments would be of major scientific significance, regardless of whether or not life was detected.
The microfluidic Wet Chemistry Lab (mWCL)
In collaboration with NASA-Ames and JPL, and funded by a NASA COLDTech grant, we have developed a flow-through microfluidic WCL (mWCL) prototype shown in Figure 2. The mWCL is capable of determining similar species and properties as the Phoenix WCL, but of the ejected plume particles of Enceladus . Using the heritage of the flight-proven WCL ion selective electrode (ISE) sensors, mWCL electrochemical sensor array will be able to characterize the aqueous chemistry of the plume ice particles by determining the presence and concentrations of soluble components such as; Ca2+, Mg2+, Na+, K+, Cl-, Br-, NH4+, SO42-, NO3-, CO2 (g) and O2 (g) and other dissolved gases, and chemical properties including pH, reduction-oxidation potential, alkalinity, and conductivity. The greatest challenge will be performing such analyses with the limited sample available from the plume. Based on Cassini plume composition data [9,11], an educated estimate of the sample collected from the icy particle plumes of Enceladus by a reasonably sized collector with multiple flybys would be in the order of 50-100 μg. The mWCL must thus be able to analyze microliter-sized liquid samples. To allow such µL-volume samples, the prototype mWCL has been designed to hold 14 sensors with a channel size that currently allows it to analyze a 100 μL sample. Thus the mWCL requires 104 times less sample than did the Phoenix WCL.
The mWCL sensor array was calibrated using a variety of salt solutions expected on Enceladus with concentrations varying from 10-6 to 10-2 M. The mWCL sensor array was then characterized by performing analyses using simulants based on the known or modelled ocean chemistries of Earth and Enceladus, respectively. Selectivity coefficients were determined for the ISEs using the fixed interference method (FIM) and the matched potential method (MPM). With these values and the Nikolsky-Eisenman equation, we show it would be possible for mWCL to accurately measure the activities of soluble species in the presence of interferants and thus determine the ionic composition of Enceladus' oceans.
The Microfluidic Icy-world Chemical Analyzer (MICA)
MICA’s electrochemical sensor array can determine the chemical energetics of surface or plume samples. It can measure dissolved gases and a variety of metal ions and can determine the electron-transfer properties that ccan reveal the energetic differences necessary for life. MICA is being developed primarily to provide soluble-chemistry context, habitability information, and comparative oceanography data as an element of a payload instrument suite on search-for-life missions, such as the proposed Europa Lander. The microfluidic system supports sample volumes from a few µL to many mL. It carries ultrahigh purity water and freeze-dried conditioning reagents and standards to prepare and calibrate sensors, which are configured as a pair of redundant, fluidically isolated sets of 24 sensors each with multiple reference electrodes. Replicate measurements will be made on multiple aliquots of each sample; samples are readily diluted by the microfluidic system so that high-concentration ionic species can be measured beyond the typical ~5-log dynamic range (~ 5 µM – 1 M) of most of the ISEs .
 Kounaves, S. P., et al. (2010) J. Geophy. Res., 115, E00E10. Full Text