NASA wants to use a pulsing laser to sniff for life on Mars


It’s a version of the lidar technology used in self-driving cars.

Scientists at NASA announced Wednesday that they’re working on a version of lidar technology to detect life on Mars called the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument, or BILI.

Lidar is the laser-based radar-like system used to measure distance to help guide self-driving cars. It’s used on Teslas and Google’s self-driving car project, for example.

BILI was originally created by the military to detect biohazards and life-threatening chemicals here on Earth by using lasers to sniff for biological information about particles in the air.

But NASA says BILI can be adapted to detect biological particles that would indicate signs of life on Mars, too.

With a particle-detecting lidar system, scientists will be able to scan Martian dust plumes without driving into them, so as to avoid potential contamination. The lidar system attaches to a mast on a rover and pulses fluorescent light into airborne dust, keeping a safe distance of several hundred meters.

By analyzing the way the dust interacts with the light, scientists can gather data about the age of the dust and any organic materials it may contain.

If the technology is deployed on the Red Planet, it won’t be first time NASA has used lidar to better understand Mars. In 1996 NASA launched the Mars Orbital Laser Altimeter (MOLA) to read how light bounced off the planet in order to create a comprehensive map, which it did while orbiting Mars for four and a half years.

NASA doesn’t have any solid plans yet to send the lidar sniffing system into space. But the researchers propose that it could be used in the Icebreaker Life mission, a NASA Discovery Program project that aims to search for life on Mars.

Elon Musk’s enthusiasm to bring humans to Mars has rekindled public fascination with the planet, as his private interplanetary transport company, SpaceX, has been launching tests of its reusable rockets all year.

Watch a video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recapping the Curiosity Rover’s last four years on Mars.

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