November 02, 2016 News

How life on Mars might be 'sniffed out' by BILI

A new instrument designed to detect organic molecules in dust plumes, could be used to look for life on other planets

This artist's rendition shows how a proposed laser-fluorescence instrument could operate on Mars. Image: NASA
This artist's rendition shows how a proposed laser-fluorescence instrument could operate on Mars. Image: NASA

A new instrument known as the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument, or BILI for short that is based on a remote sensing technique that the U.S. military currently use, could be sent to Mars and other targets in the Solar System to ‘sniff’ for life.

BILI has been under development for the past two decades and the research is headed by Branimir Blagojevic, a NASA technologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who started the project with his former employers Science and Engineering Services, LLC. The sensor is presently used to remotely monitor the air to detect potentially life-threatening chemicals, toxins, and pathogens and now this same technology is being developed to detect organic bio-signatures on other planets.

BILI works on a similar principle to other types of remote sensing instruments such as radar, but instead of using radio waves to probe its environment, BILI is a fluorescence-based lidar, meaning that it uses light to detect and analyse the composition of particles in the atmosphere.

The technology is not new and has been used by NASA to detect chemicals in Earth's atmosphere as part of its climate-studies research. So far, however, the agency has yet so use this technique in Solar System 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," said Blagojevic.

It is envisaged that BILI will scan for dust plumes while attached to a rover’s mast, and once detected the instrument would fire its lasers into the dust causing the particles inside to resonate or fluoresce. If the dust contained organic particles created relatively recently or in the past it would be picked up in the analysis of the fluorescence.

"If the bio-signatures are there, it could be detected in the dust," said Blagojevic. Not only that but BILI should be able to detect in real-time, small levels of complex organic materials from a distance of several hundred meters. Therefore, because the ground-level analysis is conducted from afar, BILI reduces the risk of sample contamination that could bias the results.

"This makes our instrument an excellent complementary organic-detection instrument, which we could use in tandem with more sensitive, point sensor-type mass spectrometers that can only measure a small amount of material at once," added Blagojevic. "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."

The sensor is also not limited to placement on a rover rumbling around the barren surface of a planet, as it could also be installed on an orbiting spacecraft, thus increasing the probability of finding bio-signatures in the Solar System. "We are ready to integrate and test this novel instrument, which would be capable of detecting a number of organic bio-signatures," said Blagojevic. "Our goal is increasing the likelihood of their discovery."

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