A new device could significantly speed up the search for life on Mars.
Using a green laser to scan surfaces for evidence of past or present life, the Stanoff Biofinder can, in less than a second, detect organisms as small as microbes from several feet away. The instrument, named for its fast, hands-off approach to finding life, is described in a paper published in Astrobiology. When the device showers a surface with laser light, molecules that absorb the radiation become excited and emit a faint fluorescent glow. Proteins, lipids, and other biologically produced substances only glow for a matter of nanoseconds, whereas the fluorescence given off rocks and minerals lasts thousands or millions of times longer. By recognizing only fluorescent blips less than 20 nanoseconds long, the Standoff Biofinder can pick out biological materials—dead or alive—against non-biological background materials.
A team of researchers led by Anupam Misra, a physicist at the Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP), recently put the Standoff Biofinder through the ringer to evaluate its life-perceiving prowess. In a series of lab experiments, researchers scanned various biological targets, such as crushed eggshells and algae-coated coral. The instrument was able to detect vestiges of life up to two meters (about 6.5 feet) away in one-tenth of a second. Misra was particularly impressed by the Biofinder’s ability to discern microbes among grains of Antarctic soil, which strongly resembles the Martian terrain.
Read more about it at NOVA Next.