NASA’s latest toy is a sniffer. The instrument called BILI – or Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument – is an attempt to sniff out life on Mars or any other planet in the solar system. Still in its prototype stage, BILI can be helpful in detecting bio-signatures like methane or oxygen in an alien planet’s atmosphere.

Branimir Blagojevic, a NASA technologist associated with the experiment, stated that if the agency successfully develops the instrument, it would be the first of its kind. Originally developed by military to detect pathogens and toxins in the air, BILI, which shall be attached to the Mars rover, will sniff elements in dust clouds coming from the planets. The detector has two ultraviolet rays to beam light at the dust, causing excitement among the dust particles. Scientists can analyse the molecules in that state to identify the composition of the plumes and possibly detect chemical signs that imply organics and life. The instrument’s technique allows it to detect these potential organic molecules from a far away distance (hundreds of feet away), which would be beneficial in the rough Martian environment where reaching a specific spot for a sample can be really difficult.

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Mars’ Surface | Source: NASA

Blagojevic stated that BILI’s measurements can be quickly conducted over a broad area. He added that the survey instrument has a nose for certain molecules only. BILI may be even used on an orbiting spacecraft, to detect biomarkers from whatever alien planet or moon it happens to be floating around.

BILI might not go on a Mars mission soon, but other spacecraft already orbiting the planet or slated to launch in the near future are seeking biosugnatures on the Red Planet.

The European Space Agency and Russia’s ExoMars orbiter, named Trace Gas Orbiter, recently made it to Mars and should find signs of past or present life on the planet’a atmosphere. The space agencies are contemplating sending an ExoMars mission to Mars by 2020 to dig into the planet’s surface and search for life.

The Indian Mars orbiter is looking for methane traces too from its orbital position.