'Tricorder' Ready For Mars Rover This Year

As science fiction fans may recall, the tricorder was a standard issue prop in the original Star Trek series of the mid-1960's. The standard Starfleet tricorder was used for determining various characteristics of landing areas; the chemical composition of any material was easily determined. Tricorders need only be aimed at the object of study, and a material analysis is ready for the user in moments.

Of course, that's just science fiction. Or is it?

"We're developing a tricorder," declares Dr. Robert Downs of the University of Arizona Department of Geosciences. The technology is being developed to create a pocket-sized model for the 2009 Mars rover that will be able to determine the composition of minerals in Martian rocks and soil.


(Robert Downs adjusts material in a Raman spectrometer)

The new "tricorder" will have two functional parts: a very compact Raman spectrometer and a comprehensive database of Earth's minerals.

The Raman spectrometer is based on a technique developed by Sir C.V. Raman, an Indian physicist who won a Nobel prize in 1930 for the discovery. Unlike most methods of conducting an analysis of a material, it does not require destructive testing. By firing a laser at the sample, atoms are excited, which then emit a very weak light with a pattern characteristic of the material. Says Downs, "It's like a fingerprint." Dr. Bonner Denton is working on the hardware side; NASA is providing funding to develop the instrument for the 2009 Mars Rover.

The other necessary component is a database of these patterns; this requires that known samples are tested and the patterns are recorded. As you might imagine, this is a labor-intensive process; a group of undergraduate researchers is helping complete the RRUFF Project, the first comprehensive database of the Raman spectra of all of Earth's minerals. The RRUFF Project is funded by a grant from Michael Scott, founding president of Apple Computer. (RRUFF is the name of Scott's cat.)

The device will have applications in many fields, not just planetary exploration. According to Dr. Downs:

"Bonner Denton has a demonstration he uses upstairs. He takes a bottle of Tylenol, a white plastic container and the pills are inside. You can shoot the Raman [specrometer] and a laser goes through that white plastic, it identifies the three parts of Tylenol and it tells you what the plastic is made out of. It works on leaves. I can identify the species of trees by shooting their leaves. I don’t think the biologists are aware of this yet."
(From Mars Science Laboratory)


(Spock's Tricorder - Detail)

Dr. Downs and Dr. Denton are working on the materials part of a tricorder; take a look at the NUGGET - Neutron/Gamma Ray Geologic Tomography device to see how NASA is doing on a device that can detect life forms. Read more from these reference articles: Identifying Gems and Minerals on Earth and Mars and Mars Science Laboratory

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