A new scientific instrument with the extraordinary name "TreePol spectropolarimeter" can be used to detect the presence of lifeforms from several kilometers away.
And while right now the device is best used for spotting faraway plants, a high-powered version of the tool could someday serve as the most reliable means of searching for extraterrestrial life to date, according to a press release published Tuesday by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).
Often, when scientists talk about which exoplanets or moons might harbor life, they weigh factors like water, atmospheric oxygen, and the presence of organic molecules. But that opens the door to all kinds of false positives — there's an underwater lake on Mars, for instance, but that doesn't mean anything lives there.
But TreePol detects light that's been rotated after bouncing off molecules found only in living things. The tool was specifically built to detect foliage, but can also detect light that bounced off of most living things on Earth, according to the press release.
It's possible that the molecules that make up whatever extraterrestrial life might exist out there doesn't interact with light in the same way as life on Earth. But the important distinction here is that nothing else on Earth does — nothing will trigger TreePol's sensors except for living things.
Right now, the team is preparing to test whether TreePol could be used to analyze crops from a plane or satellite, slowly ramping up the distance over which TreePol scans. If those tests work, the scientists will investigate whether they can use it to scan the cosmos, perhaps by sending TreePol up to the International Space Station.
READ MORE: Reliable method for detecting extraterrestrial life is used on Earth for the first time [NWO Newsroom]
More on extraterrestrial life: Scientists Need to Solve These Two Mysteries to Find Life on Mars