NASA has come up with a new way of looking for life on Mars, and it’s a mechanical nose that makes use of a perceptive laser sensor.

The sensor is used to look for biological threats by the military, and will now be put to use to sniff out signs of life on the Red Planet. According to a new report in the Orlando Sentinel, the sensor will be adapted and taken on future missions to Mars and other space bodies.

NASA Unveils New Mechanical Nose To Smell Life On Mars

Military technology repurposed for use on Mars

The announcement was made on Tuesday by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The space sensor will be built on the same framework as the Defense Department’s Joint Biological Standoff Detection System.

While the sensor can’t tell whether there is life around or not, it can detect amino acids and other molecules that life, as we know, would need. Given that the sensor will not be used to seek out chemical weapons, it has been renamed the Bio-Indicator Lidar instrument.

“NASA has never used it before for planetary ground level exploration,” said Branimir Blagojevic, a technologist with NASA who worked on the development of the sensor in the private sector. “If the bio-signatures are there, it could be detected in the dust.”

Lidar sensor uses laser pulses

The sensor works using lidar, which is related to active radar. However, radar uses radio waves, whereas Lidar uses laser pulses. The name Lidar is an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging.

Lidar works in the same way as radar. The device sends out a signal which is reflected from a nearby object and returned to the receiver, where the device can work out what sort of object it is based on the signal that it receives back.

Technologically speaking the device can trace its roots to the laser sensors of the 1960s and 70s. These days lidar may be used in driverless cars, enabling them to avoid collisions, while lidar-equipped airplanes have been used by NASA to study the atmospheric chemistry of the Earth.

The system announced this week uses ultraviolet laser pulses. Thanks to the tiny wavelength of the beams, they are great for detecting particles. If a molecule is hit the UV radiation will excite the electrons in that particle, and the amount of disturbance can suggest the age and size of the particle.

NASA planning future Mars missions

There have been other lasers used to study Mars, such as the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter. This device was used to map the Red Planet.

Another laser is found on the Curiosity Rover, which fires pulses at Martian rocks to study what they are made of. The rover picks up samples using a scoop before analyzing them.

There has so far been no announcement on when the lidar system could be put to use on Mars. The technology is still being tested here on Earth, and certain improvements need to be made in order to ensure that it can survive in the harsh Martian environment.

NASA is going to send a rover to Mars in 2020, but so far it has not been suggested that it would include a lidar tool. For his part Blagojevic believes that the device could be used in the proposed Icebreaker Life mission. This would see a rover sent to find out what is underneath the frozen polar plains of the Red Planet.

There has also been talk of sending the first humans to Mars by 2030, although firm plans have not been revealed.