ARLINGTON (CBSDFW.COM) – When NASA came calling on University of Texas at Arlington professor Sandy Dasgupta, they really came calling.

The government agency awarded Dasgupta a $1.2 million grant to develop a specialized instrument that they hope will detect the beginning stages of life on Mars.

“People have been asking the question, whether there is life on Mars. Life is a big question. Short of that, are there organics on Mars; which are the first building blocks,” Dasgupta said.

The professor is looking for those building blocks in the soil on Mars. The grant will help him develop an instrument that can identify a broad range of ions.

“We’ll be finding things that we were not necessarily looking for,” Dasgupta said. “So there are lots of surprises in store.”

In theory, soil from Mars would be dissolved in water and then flushed through a tiny tube that Dasgupta equated to a fishing line.

The idea then is to separate the ions in the soil. Those ions could be the key to determining if life on Mars actually exists. It’s no wonder that UTA graduate student Phillip Shelor is thrilled to be part of the research.

“It will be great to have some sort of form in hand actually discovering the building blocks on Mars for life,” Shelor said.

The professor’s instrument will be tested on Earth for at least four years before it heads to Mars. Dasgupta hopes to send it to the planet by 2020.