It’s a question that has long plagued humanity: are we alone in the universe?

Scientists at McGill’s Macdonald campus are venturing towards a definitive answer with the development of a biosignature or life-detection platform.

The device – which would ultimately be about the size of an IPhone, could eventually be sent to Mars to test for signs of life.

Trekkies – or fans well versed in the Star Trek universe — will recognize the device as something similar to Dr. 'Bones" McCoy’s “Tricorder” device.


The "Tricorder," used by Dr. McCoy on the series Star Trek, was a "multifunctional" device used for sensor scanning and data collection. (Screengrab courtesy of CBS/ Paramount)

The end goal is to detect microbes and DNA within small samples of ice.

“There are some indications that Mars, many billions of years ago, was much warmer – and much wetter,” explained Lyle Whyte, a McGill professor. “Where it would have been an environment that we can envision it would have hosted life as we know on Earth.”

In fact, researchers believe that flowing water could exist on the planet today, beneath its frigid surface. They’re also targeting some of the moons around Jupiter and Saturn – planetary bodies that boast salt oceans beneath a daunting ice-covered surface.

“We’re very confident that in the 2020’s, we will be sending missions to these moons,” Whyte said.

The DNA sequencing machine itself is very small. Compact and lightweight, it has to be able to withstand harsh temperatures.

The entire platform, Whyte explained, will be automated and combined with a robotic drill that can take samples of ice.

Once these samples are collected, the machine will test the ice for microbes and potential DNA.

The project is a collaboration between McGill University in Montreal, and Carleton University in Ottawa, where the drill is being designed by aerospace engineers.

“The biggest challenge when you’re trying to design something that will go into space, is that it works consistently,” said Brian Lynch, a Post-Doctoral researcher at Carleton.

Simply put: if the machine breaks down on Mars, there’s no one around to fix it.

In the meantime, technological tests are being carried out in the Arctic at McGill’s research station to ensure the devices can withstand inhospitable environments.

Three years from now, those on-board with the project hope the device will be ready to enter the stratosphere.

“If you contribute a great amount to something that detects and finds evidence of life elsewhere, then you’re really part of making history—so that would be amazing,” Lynch added.

The researchers believe that their work is paving the way for scientific strides in the near future – regardless of their findings.

The way Whyte puts it, even detecting the presence of DNA – even if the specific strain is not readable – you’ve essentially detected the existence of life on another planet.

“[It would] be an amazing discovery in the history of science and mankind,” he said.

They’re confident that soon enough, the technology will be used to find something familiar in the great unknown.