This prototype experiment could “sniff” for life on other planets

NASA researchers are currently working on a new laser-based tool, based on existing military technology, that could one day be used to “sniff” out life on Mars or other planets by detecting the signatures of oxygen, methane or other atmospheric gasses from the surface.

According to Mashable and Washington Post reports, the prototype device is known as the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument (BILI) and is based on a sensing technique currently used by the US armed forces to monitor the air for potentially dangerous chemicals, toxins, and pathogens.

The device, which is unlikely to be put into use anytime soon, is unable to directly confirm the existence of biological life on other planets, but would be capable of searching for amino acids and other organic molecules that serve as the building blocks for such organisms, officials with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland explained.

While the agency has used instruments similar to BILI to detect chemicals in Earth’s atmosphere as part of its climate-based research, it has yet to utilize the technology on other worlds, Branimir Blagojevic, a technologist from Goddard now working on the project, said in a statement. “If the agency develops it,” he noted, “it will be the first of a kind.”

Device could operate autonomously, reduce sample contamination risk

BILI is a fluorescence-based lidar, meaning that, similar to radar, it would use remote-sensing instruments to detect and analyze particles. Instead of using radio waves, however, it would use light to detect organic bio-signatures from the surface of Mars or elsewhere in the cosmos.

As mentioned above, the device is based on military technology currently in use here on Earth – technology that Blagojevic had previously worked on before joining NASA. As the Washington Post said, it would emit ultraviolet laser pulses which would bounce back upon hitting particles, exciting its electrons and helping scientists determine their size and approximate age.

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An image showing how the detector might eventually work. (Credit: NASA)

The researchers said that they envision BILI as “a rover’s sense of smell,” which means that it would be positioned on the vehicle’s mast and would first scan the terrain for dust plumes. Upon detection, it would then use its UV lasers, causing particles contained in those plumes to glow. “If the bio-signatures are there,” Blagojevic said, “it could be detected in the dust.”

BILI would be of tremendous value because it would be able to detect small levels of complex organic molecules from several hundred meters away in real time, allowing it to autonomously search for signs of life in plumes located atop recurring slopes, which are difficult for rovers to traverse. Also, since it works from a distance, it would reduce the potential risk of contamination of the samples it collects, according to NASA.

“This makes our instrument an excellent complementary organic-detection instrument, which we could use in tandem with more sensitive, point sensor-type mass spectrometers that can only measure a small amount of material at once,” said Blagojevic. “BILI’s measurements do not require consumables other than electrical power and can be conducted quickly over a broad area. This is a survey instrument, with a nose for certain molecules.”


Image credit: NASA