A New Technology Could Help NASA Detect Life on Mars

Tuesday, 01 November 2016 - 3:27PM
NASA
Space
Mars
Tuesday, 01 November 2016 - 3:27PM
A New Technology Could Help NASA Detect Life on Mars
David Bowie's hit song Life on Mars has never been more relevant—everybody's talking about Mars, making plans to go to Mars, crashing landers into Mars, and making movies about finding biological material on Mars that inevitably kills everyone involved. Well, now we're one step closer to that last one—Phys.org has announced that a team of scientists have created a new kind of sensor that will make it much easier to find life on the dusty surface of Mars, if there is any to be found.

The technology is called BILI, which stands for "Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument". According to the article, it works sort of like radar:

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BILI is a fluorescence-based lidar, a type of remote-sensing instrument similar to radar in principle and operation. Instead of using radio waves, however, lidar instruments use light to detect and ultimately analyze the composition of particles in the atmosphere.
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If you've read up on the Curiosity rover or even seen a picture of it, you know that it packs a lot of tech into a relatively small space. At the same time, it has to be built for the terrain it's surveying—Mars, for example, has a lot of dust and arid, rocky landscapes. Here's how BILI would work in that kind of environment (which is pretty ingenious):

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Positioned on a rover's mast, BILI would first scan the terrain looking for dust plumes. Once detected, the instrument, then would command its two ultraviolet lasers to pulse light at the dust. The illumination would cause the particles inside these dust clouds to resonate or fluoresce. By analyzing the fluorescence, scientists could determine if the dust contained organic particles created relatively recently or in the past. The data also would reveal the particles' size.
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Fluorescence is not a new technology (NASA uses it to monitor the composition of Earth's atmosphere), but applying it to bio-detection like this is a first. What makes it even more revolutionary is that BILI may end up being much more efficient at detecting life than anything before, due in part to its extreme range:

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The beauty of BILI, Blagojevic added, is its ability to detect in real-time small levels of complex organic materials from a distance of several hundred meters. Therefore, it could autonomously search for bio-signatures in plumes above recurring slopes-areas not easily traversed by a rover carrying a variety of in-situ instruments for detailed chemical and biological analysis. Furthermore, because it could do a ground-level aerosol analysis from afar, BILI reduces the risk of sample contamination that could skew the results.
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All of this makes BILI one of the best tools available for the search for extraterrestrial life (besides, you know, giant radio telescopes). It'll be interesting to see if further exploration of Mars turns up any organic compounds or even biological life, but in the end, it probably won't be intelligent life, the kind Stephen Hawking warns us about. Still, finding liquid water and organic material would be exciting for all the would-be Martian colonists on a practical level: if Mars has conditions that can support life, it means settling (and maybe terraforming) the planet might end up being easier than we thought. Even if there's no biological material to be found, technology similar to BILI could help aid the search for methane, which is one of Elon Musk's keys to making Mars colonization possible.

If everything goes well, Mars might become the kind of place to raise your kid (even if it's cold as hell).


 
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