A technology commonly used by the US military to monitor the air to detect potentially hazardous toxins, germs, and chemicals has inspired NASA to deploy a new “sniffing” device in the search for life on Mars.

Dubbed the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument, or BILI, this new device is in many ways similar to radars. In fact, the only difference between BILI, the fluorescent lidar, and a radar is that the former uses light to examine particles as opposed to radars that wave radio waves. NASA has relied upon fluorescent equipment for monitoring chemicals on Earth, but this is the first time the technology will be deployed for planetary 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,” explains Branimir Blagojevic, a NASA technologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland,United States, the Washington Post reports.

On Tuesday, a group of researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center announced that they will be adapting BILI for future missions to Mars, as well as the rest of the Solar System. Although the lidar can not directly validate the existence of life, it is optimized for scouring the target region for amino acids and other organic molecules that life as we know it can not do without.

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

Another big advantage BILI brings along is that it is a low-maintenance device. “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 mentioned.

Overall, the scientific community worldwide is optimistic that with this new system, NASA will be greatly increasing the chances of finding traces of organic molecules and biosignatures not just in Mars, but elsewhere in the Solar System too.


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