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.
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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.
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.”