This artist’s rendition shows how BILI could operate on Mars. (NASA)

A sensing technique used by the U.S. military currently to remotely monitor the air to detect potentially life-threatening chemicals, toxins, and pathogens has inspired a new instrument that could “sniff” for life on Mars and other targets in the solar system.

The Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument (BILI) is a fluorescence-based lidar that, when positioned on a rover’s mast, would first scan the terrain looking for dust plumes. Once detected, the instrument would command its two ultraviolet lasers to pulse light at the dust. The illumination would cause the particles inside these dust clouds to resonate or fluoresce. By analyzing the fluorescence, scientists could determine if the dust contained organic particles created relatively recently or in the past.