Technology originally developed for the military to detect airborne biohazards may now be used to search for life on Mars.
Physicist Branimir Blagojevic, who originally helped develop the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument or “BILI” while at Science and Engineering Services Inc., is now a NASA technologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and hopes to mount the BILI on a Mars rover.
“We are ready to integrate and test this novel instrument, which would be capable of detecting a number of organic biosignatures,” Blagojevic said. “Our goal is increasing the likelihood of their discovery.”
Lidar, short for “light radar,” operates much like traditional radar, but uses laser light instead of radio waves to measure distances. When mounted on the mast of a rover, it sends pulses of ultraviolet light through plumes of atmospheric particles in Mars’ air, causing the particles to either resonate or fluoresce. By analyzing that fluorescence, scientists could then determine the age of any organic particle.
“If the biosignatures are there, it could be detected in the dust,” Blagojevicsaid.
Searches for life on Mars have thus far centered on analyzing scoops of regolith—the dust and other loose geological materials that cover bedrock on the moon, Mars, asteroids and other planets. In 2012, a scoop of regolith analyzed on board the rover Curiosity determined that the surface of Mars is, in fact, two percent water,
Kat Merck is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. An amateur naturalist who studied forestry and natural resources at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, she writes on a wide range of topics for local and national publications.