An instrument used by the U.S. military to detect noxious substances could become the “nose” for a Mars rover to “sniff out” gases in the atmosphere that could indicate life

NASA engineers believe a bio-indicator Lidar Instrument
(BILI) used by the U.S. military to detect noxious substances in the air could
be used to locate gases in the atmosphere that may signify life on Mars.

Earth observation satellites already use fluorescence to
detect chemicals implicating climate change in our atmosphere, but the
technique has yet to be used in exploring other planets. “NASA has never used it before for planetary ground
level exploration,” technologist Branimir Blagojevic of the Goddard Space
Flight Center said of the technique. “If
the agency develops it, it will be the first of a kind.”


Image source: NASA.

Blagojevic previously worked
for Science and Engineering Services, which developed the version of the sensor
used by the U.S. military. The planetary science version is envisioned as being
placed on a rover’s mast. In operation, it would scan the local environment
looking for dust plumes. Once it had detected one, it would use two ultraviolet
lasers to pulse light at the dust, causing certain particles to fluoresce.
Analyzing this fluorescence is important, as it reveals whether the dust
contains organic materials, and also gives information on the particle size.

According to
Blagojevic, BILI would be a survey
instrument rather than a detector for detailed analysis. It would be capable of
detecting levels of complex molecules from a distance of several hundred meters
in real-time, and with no need for physical contact with the dust, there is no
risk of contamination. What’s more, it could carry out surveys in areas not
accessible to conventional rovers.

“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,” Blagojevic said. “BILI’s
measurements do not require consumables other than electrical power and can be
conducted quickly over a broad area.”

The project is aiming to develop
a smaller, more rugged version of the sensor. Blagojevic is also hoping to
confirm that it can detect very small concentrations of a broad range of
organic compounds in ground-level aerosols. It could also be installed on an
orbiting spacecraft to detect life-indicating chemicals in the atmosphere s of
other planetary bodies, such as the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

Source: The