Thanks to scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the next generation of Mars-exploring robots might just get a new raygun to help them figure out what secrets the planet has to hide.
One of the most important functions of the NASA robots on Mars has been to analyze soil and rocks that are found on the surface in order to determine just what they are made of and if any trace of organic compounds might be found. Of course, so far away from home this procedure does not always go to plan and samples are often lost or corrupted before they can be analyzed.
This analyzation takes place using what is known as mass spectrometry, which involves turning a sample's molecules into charged ions that are then gathered and analyzed. In space missions, this gathering and handling of samples has meant more chance for failure and possible contamination.
The next step in the process was to add laser ablation to simple spectrometry, which works by firing a laser at the sample surface to create a plume of ions for analyzation. Of course, the issue here lies in collecting the ions before they drift away and are unusable.
Enter PNNL. In the 1990s, Dick Smith and Keqi Tang developed the electrodynamic ion funnel - a set of conductive rings that draw in and focus ions. As well as it works on earth, however, it turns out that it works even better in an environment with an air pressure of around 5 torr - you know, like the surface of Mars.
The combination of mass spectrometry, laser ablation and now the electrodynamic ion funnel prompted NASA to try it out in a lab setting with excellent results and the next challenge is to downsize the technology so that it will easily fit onto the arm of the next robot that takes a trip to Mars.
Nothing like using a laser-blasting ion gun to gather samples on the red planet. Hopefully, though, we don't run into any intelligent lifeforms that "misunderstand" our friendly way of sampling their planet.