By Mark Waghorn via SWNS
A Star Trek-style scanner that can detect signs of life could be adapted to look at planets for aliens, scientists said.
In experiments, the device, called the Compact Colour Biofinder, identified biological remains in fish fossils that were more than 50 million years old.
The device works under fluorescent light at video speed - imaging amino acids, microbes, proteins and lipids.
It can even tell the type of organism - just like Starfleet officer Pavel Chekov distinguishes between Romulans and Vulcans.
Project leader Dr. Anupam Misra, of Hawaii University in Manoa, said: "The Biofinder is the first system of its kind.
"At present, there is no other equipment that can detect minute amounts of bio-residue on a rock during the daytime.
"Additional strengths of the Biofinder are it works from a distance of several metres, takes video - and can quickly scan a large area."
It accurately analyzed hundreds of specimens unearthed at a graveyard of prehistoric marine creatures in Colorado.
The state-of-the-art camera may hold the key to discovering ancient life on Mars - and searching for extraterrestrials on other worlds.
Finding evidence of biological residue in a vast planetary landscape is an enormous challenge.
So the NASA team tested Biofinder's abilities on the Green River fossils - corroborating results through laboratory scanners.
Dr. Misra said: "There are some unknowns regarding how quickly bio-residues are replaced by minerals in the fossilization process.
"However, our findings confirm once more that biological residues can survive millions of years.
"Using biofluorescence imaging effectively detects these trace residues in real time."
Finding life beyond Earth - either existing or extinct - would be the greatest discovery in the history of mankind.
It's one of the major goals of planetary exploration missions of international space agencies.
Mars rover Perseverance is currently drilling in Jezero Crater for microbes that may have evolved when the Red Planet was a water world.
Dr. Misra said: "If the Biofinder were mounted on a rover on Mars or another planet, we would be able to rapidly scan large areas quickly to detect evidence of past life, even if the organism was small, not easy to see with our eyes, and dead for many millions of years.
"We anticipate that fluorescence imaging will be critical in future NASA missions to detect organics and the existence of life on other planetary bodies."
There is a growing theory among space scientists that life is common across the universe.
Team biologist Dr. Sonia Rowley, also from Hawaii, said: "The Biofinder's capabilities would be critical for NASA's Planetary Protection program, for the accurate and non-invasive detection of contaminants such as microbes or extraterrestrial biohazards to or from planet Earth."
Dr. Misra and colleagues are applying to have the opportunity to send the Biofinder on a future mission.
He added: "The detection of such biomarkers would constitute groundbreaking evidence for life outside of planet Earth."
Biofinder was described in the journal Scientific Reports.
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