NASA Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument could sniff out life on Mars

NASA has a new prototype instrument that takes advantage of a sensing technique that is currently used by the military to monitor air remotely in an effort to detect chemicals, toxins, and pathogens that could threaten the lives of servicemen and women. The NASA instrument is called the Bio-indicator Lidar instrument or BILI and rather than sniffing out hazards, it would be used to sniff out life on Mars.

NASA's instrument prototype was developed by Branimir Blagojevic a technologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The scientist applied the sensor technology the prototype instrument and then proved in testing that the some tech could be used to detect life on Mars by looking for organic biosignatures. BILI is a fluorescence-based lidar using light to detect and analyze the composition of particles in the atmosphere.

NASA has used fluorescence instruments to look for chemicals in the Earth's atmosphere, but hasn't used this technique in planetary studies. "NASA has never used it before for planetary ground level exploration. If the agency develops it, it will be the first of a kind," Blagojevic said.

BILI would be placed onto the mast of a rover on Mars and would scan the terrain looking for dust plumes. When a plume was detected, the dual ultraviolet lasers in BILI would cause the particles inside the dust plume to fluoresce and that fluorescence could be used to determine of the dust contained organic particles created recently or in the past. "If the bio-signatures are there, it could be detected in the dust," Blagojevic said. BILI would be able to detect and work samples from afar allowing it to test dust in locations where the rover is unable to physically travel.