Seeking Life’s Chemical Fingerprints with the ‘Raman Effect’

Perhaps in 2008, a rover on Mars will press its robotic arm against a rock. A probe at the end of the arm will scan the rock, repeatedly zapping the surface with a microscopically thin laser beam, probably green or ultraviolet. As the laser light hits the rock, it will scatter (be deflected) in random directions. Most of that light will stay the same color, but a tiny fraction will be shifted just slightly to a different color, a phenomenon called the Raman effect. That slight shift will reveal whether the rock harbors the chemical signatures of life, either microbes now alive or the remains of organisms that lived in the past. The “Raman-shifted” light also can detect any minerals indicating whether Mars once was conducive to life.