NASA Wants Tricorder for Mars

Release time:2017-07-04
source:EE Times

NASA wants to take to Mars a geological tricorder. A researcher preparing for the mission asked attendees at last week’s Sensors Expo here if they could build one.

Right now the space agency has four portable scientific instruments weighing about 21 pounds. They do a reasonable job, but there’s room for improvement, and they are a bit much to carry.

Astronauts will be laden with bulky suits, oxygen tanks and backpacks. They have limited time to accomplish a broad range of missions walking over a rocky terrain with no hospitals within a million miles if they fall.

“We’d like to have multiple instruments in one. Can we build this thing?" asked Alexander Sehlke, a research fellow in the BASALT project at NASA Ames, speaking in a keynote here.

As part of its work, the team has identified several requirements for their Martian power tools. For example, besides being light and small, they should capture high-quality data. That’s not easy given that they need to interact with jagged rocks, identifying elements sometimes in 5mm crannies where contacts are poor and signal reflections are abundant.

One of four instruments researchers are testing for use on Mars. (Image: NASA)
One of four instruments researchers are testing for use on Mars. (Image: NASA)

Instruments should analyze the data in a short time, in part to speed communications. One tool embeds a library of the spectral profiles of minerals to speed identification. Such tricks are helpful given latency back to Earth where online data is stored varies from 4.5 to 20 minutes.

Today, some of the team’s instruments stream data over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to local servers that can send it back to earth. But others require data be manually read out, sometimes by taking pictures of displays or at best a multi-step process of rebooting the instrument and synching it to a server. Highly illogical!

Here’s one component you won’t find inside your Black & Decker drill: The instruments generally include small pumps to evacuate internal gases to improve the accuracy of readings.

The good news is a laser and an x-ray system the team currently uses have many overlapping parts and functions. Unfortunately, an infrared instrument is quite different.

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