Mars rover could one day ‘sniff’ out life on red planet

A Mars rover could one day be equipped with a sensor that would allow it to “sniff” out signs of life.

NASA is working to adapt a device that’s currently used to detect chemicals, toxins and pathogens in the air on here on Earth for use in planetary exploration.

Called the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument, or BILI, the device uses light to detect and ultimately analyze the composition of particles in the atmosphere.

Branimir Blagojevic, a NASA technologist who used to work for a company that developed BILI, has created a prototype to demonstrate how the tech could be used to detect bio-signatures on Mars.

“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 in a statement issued by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Rover gets a nose

The idea is that BILI would act “a rover’s sense of smell.”

It would be attached to a rover’s mast and scan the terrain for dust plumes. BILI would then use its ultraviolet lasers to pulse light at the dust.

Scientists could then analyze the dust’s florescence — emissions from substances that have absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation — and potentially determine whether it contains organic particles, now or in the past.

“If the bio-signatures are there, it could be detected in the dust,” Blagojevic said.


An artist’s rendition shows how a proposed BILI device on a Mars rover would function. (NASA)

BILI’s range means the rover could sniff for these bio-signatures from a distance of several hundred metres, meaning it could analyze slopes and other areas of the planet’s dangerous terrain that are hard for a rover to reach with more up-close-and-personal instruments.

What’s more, a second BILI device could be attached to an orbiting spacecraft to search for bio-signatures in the solar system.

“BILI’s measurements do not require consumables other than electrical power and can be conducted quickly over a broad area,” Blagojevic said. “This is a survey instrument, with a nose for certain molecules.”