The machine will act as a miniature lab detecting whether molecules such as amino acids and fatty acids, associated with life, are present in whatever sample fed into the system.
"If this instrument were to be sent to space, it would be the most sensitive device of its kind to leave Earth, and the first to be able to look for both amino acids and fatty acids," said Jessica Creamer, who is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Similar to the tricorder, NASA's machine is also a "miniaturized on-the-go laboratory," slightly thicker than a regular sized laptop.
"Our device is a chemical analyser that can be reprogrammed like a laptop to perform different functions," said Fernanda Mora, a JPL technologist.
The Star Trek-esque machine would typically require liquid samples to work. Scientists would have to feed dry material into a tube with water, which is then heated to 100 degrees Celsius producing a solution carrying the organic molecules.
What scientists will typically look for in the results is a certain type of amino acid that can either be left handed or right handed.
Both versions of the molecules are mirror images of each other. However, according to experts if a sample is a 50-50 mixture of both types, it unlikely to have a "biological origin."
"But if we were to find an excess of either left or right, that would be the golden ticket. That would be the best evidence so far that life exists on other planets," Creamer said.Suggest a correction