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New Military-Inspired 'Sniffing' Tool Could Help Search Life on Mars

Nov 02, 2016 05:30 AM EDT

Researchers at NASA are trying to utilize a sensing instrument used by the US military, which monitors the air to detect the presence of dangerous chemicals, toxins and pathogens, to help the search for possible alien life in Mars and other objects in the solar system.

The instrument, called Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument (BILI), is a remote-sensing technology that uses light to detect and analyze the composition of particles in the atmosphere.

According to NASA, the use of the fluorescence-based lidar is not new in the field of science. NASA has previously used fluorescence instrument to detect chemicals in the Earth's atmosphere as part of its climate-studies research. However, the agency noted that the sensing instrument has never been use before in a planetary ground level exploration.

"NASA has never used it before for planetary ground level exploration. If the agency develops it, it will be the first of a kind," said Branimir Blagojevic, a NASA technologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and formerly worked for a company that developed the sensor, in a statement. "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."

Blagojevic and his colleagues already developed a prototype using the same technology as BILI. The prototype were able to use the same remote-sensing technology applied to BILI and could be effective at detecting organic bio-signatures on Mars.

The re-engineered BILI will be mounted on the mast of the rover and will serve as the "rover's sense of smell." The instrument will first search for dust plumes in the terrain. Two ultraviolet lasers will then pulse light to the dust plumes. The laser would cause the particles inside the dust plumes to resonate or fluoresce. Using these fluorescence, scientists could determine the size and how recent the particles inside the dust plumes.

Due to BILI's ability to detect small levels of organic material from the distance of several hundred meters, the sensing instrument would be the perfect fit in searching organic evidence of life in Mars. Mars is known for its recurring slopes, which could make it hard for the rover to reach certain destinations.

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