As you can imagine, exploring a distant planet is no small task. With the number of exploration missions that NASA has on the radar right now, you can be that our astronauts are going to be very busy in the coming years. They’re also going to need some reliable tools in order to perform their research.
Astronauts won’t be able to spend much time on the surfaces of these distant planets and moons so it’s imperative that the surveying and collection tools they’ll use are as technologically advanced as they possibly can be.
Many of these technologies are currently being tested in Greenbelt, Maryland by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
One of the pieces of technology being tested is equipment designed to map out the geography of a planet using laser technology. Pulses of infrared light are fired at millions of different positions around the laser. The light bounces back and, based on the time it takes to return to the equipment, detailed images and maps can be created depicting the surrounding terrain. The technology is currently being used here on Earth for researching volcanoes.
Another major task for astronauts will be to determine the chemical makeup of rocks and surface materials on other planets. The tool being developed is called a fluorescence spectrometer, and it uses a kind of x-ray to evaluate the elements present in rocks and other materials. These different elements have different energy signatures and can be used to build a database. From there, researchers can graph and give detailed reports regarding what other planets are made of. Information like that could be used to determine if any of the other planets are habitable!
Another handheld tool currently being tested for determining rock composition is called the Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectrometer. It’s similar to the fluorescence spectrometer described above except it uses a laser that’s designed for analyzing smaller samples with even lighter elements light nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen.
Most of this technology is being used in other fields here on our home planet, but they will be particularly valuable when it comes to studying other planets and moons.