During his time with former employer Science and Engineering Services, LLC, Branimir Blagojevic helped build a remote-sensing device that detected biological agents. The technology, originally made for the Department of Defense (DoD), may soon find a place on Mars. Blagojevic currently leads the development of the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument (BILI), a device that could be used to spot organic molecules and signs of life on Mars.

NASA Tech Briefs: What is the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument (BILI)?

Branimir Blagojevic: BILI is a fluorescence lidar – a type of lidar that’s sending a UV laser beam to a cloud that contains aerosol particles. If there are some biological molecules, or biomarkers, attached to those aerosol particles, they will fluoresce. Backscatter fluorescence will be detected with a small telescope on the lidar, in addition to the elastic backscatter of the laser excitation radiation.

NTB: How was this remote-sensing technology used previously?

Blagojevic: This technology has been used for several decades by the Department of Defense for detection and discrimination of biological agents. I’m now thinking about using the same technology to detect organic molecules that are the product of biological decomposition of life, possibly occurring on Mars or elsewhere in the solar system.

NTB: Why is this discovery so important?

Blagojevic: From many BILI field trials, it is shown that the BILI technology is capable of simultaneously detecting and discriminating inorganic from life-produced, organic carbon-containing particulates. The capabilities of this atmospheric bio-indicator survey instrument will dramatically increase the likelihood of finding signatures of life on Mars by performing atmospheric volume scans around the rover or lander. While BILI does not directly detect or confirm the presence of life, current exploration goals for several major targets, including Mars, involve simply the identification of organic chemistry.

The real technology of bio-indicator lidar is in the calibration approach and algorithms applied to planetary bio-signature detection, while leveraging the existing knowledge from Earth-based R&D. The intention of using this survey instrument is to complement the point-sensor-type instruments similar to those in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite.

NTB: What is BILI’s range?

Blagojevic: BILI is a scanning instrument that can survey several hundreds of meters in radial direction around the rover to detect and discriminate the aerosol clouds, including those created by rover wheels. The aerosol cloud locations and their horizontal speed vectors can be tracked when the instrument is operating in scanning mode.

NTB: At what point do you envision BILI on Mars?

Blagojevic: Our team of scientists and engineers worked on this NASA-funded project for two years. To mature BILI to the technology readiness level required for the spaceflight and planetary environments of Mars, we need additional funding. This summer, we applied for the grant to mature BILI for planetary exploration. The path to deploy this instrument in future planetary missions is beyond the Mars 2020 mission. There is a possibility that the instrument is used in human exploration of Mars as a handheld instrument.

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