NASA scientists have partnered with engineers with the U.S. military to build an instrument capable of detecting the signatures of life on Mars.
A team of researchers at the Goddard Space Flight Center have already developed a prototype. They’re calling it the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument, or BILI.
The instrument is inspired by a sensor developed and used by the U.S. military to detect harmful chemicals, toxins and pathogens in the air.
BILI is powered by fluorescence-based lidar. The technology is like radar, but instead of radio waves, it uses light to detect and analyze airborne particles.
NASA has previously used fluorescence-based lidar instruments to study the atmosphere, but never in space.
“NASA has never used it before for planetary ground level exploration,” Branimir Blagojevic, a NASA technologist at Goddard, said in a news release. “If the agency develops it, it will be the first of a kind.”
Scientists imagine the new instrument mounted on the bow of a Martian rover, scanning for dust plumes. When detected, BILI would pulse flashes of light at the plumes, causing the dust particles to fluoresce.
The instrument would analyze the resonating particles for signs of organic residues.
“If the bio-signatures are there, it could be detected in the dust,” Blagojevic said.
Scientists liken the instrument to a nose, capable of delivering real-time analysis to a rover — allowing it “sniff” the ground as it explores new terrain. BILI could offer NASA scientists a faster and more efficient way to identify areas of interest to the search for life on Mars — areas to be further explored with more sensitive and fine-tuned instruments.
“We are ready to integrate and test this novel instrument, which would be capable of detecting a number organic bio-signatures,” Blagojevic said. “Our goal is increasing the likelihood of their discovery.”
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense