Lighting Up The Red Planet

Light Detection and Ranging (lidar) is a system used to detect the distance, speed, and direction of an object from a very far distance. It follows a similar principle as radar but, unlike radar which uses radio waves, lidar achieves the same feat using lights.

It is used in many applications ranging from mapping devices to an autonomous vehicle's detection system. The military even uses lidar to detect toxic substances and biological warfare agents. This use in particular piqued NASA's interest.

Lidar used for mapping the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, California. Credit: National Ocean Service

NASA has created a prototype lidar system that allows it to look for life on Mars. Dubbed the 'Bio-indicator Lidar instrument' (BILI), this device was created by Branimir Blagojevic, a technologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. BILI is a fluorescence-based lidar that could be used to detect bio-signatures in Mars' dust clouds.

The instrument would be positioned on a rover's mast and, as it finds a dust cloud, it would use two of its ultraviolet lasers to pulse the cloud. The light would cause the particles to resonate. Analyzing these resonances could reveal whether or not the dust contains organic particles .

“If the bio-signatures are there, they could be detected in the dust,” Blagojevic said.

Finding Life Beyond Mars

NASA has already used florescence-based lidar for their climate change studies, but this is the first time that it would be used in planetary studies. "If the agency develops it, it will be the first of a kind,” Blagojevic said.

The device could also be used in tandem with other detection methods. According to Blagojevic, “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.”

This technology could eventually be mounted onto orbiting spacecraft to increase the probability of finding bio-signatures in the solar system. Blagojevic says, “Our goal is increasing the likelihood of their discovery.”

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