University of Maryland: $3.2M NASA Grant Supports Development of Mini Moon Spectrometer

In a decade or less, an instrument now being developed by a University of Maryland research team might just motor over to a rock on the moon, extend a sensor and get a real-time chemical analysis that could one day assist humans in exploring the lunar landscape for the first time since 1972.

The project aims to create a miniaturized mass spectrometer and is supported by a new $3.2 million grant from NASA’s Development and Advancement of Lunar Instrumentation program.

Known as Pulsed Laser Ablation Sampling and Mass Analysis (PLASMA), the instrument uses a hand-sized laser to vaporize material for chemical analysis.

“We are targeting something that’s 10 times smaller in mass and 20 times less power hungry than the commercial mass spectrometers found in many academic laboratories,” said Ricardo Arevalo Jr., associate professor in the Department of Geology and Science PI for the investigation.

The researchers have already developed a prototype that’s dwarfed by conventional machines and are now working to further miniaturize and ruggedize it so it can survive the intense vibration, shocks and temperature swings involved with blasting off, cruising through space, landing and operating on the moon, Arevelo said.

PLASMA will play a crucial role in the exploration of resources, and ultimately help to establish a permanent human presence on the moon, said William F. McDonough, Professor of Geology and principal investigator for the overall project.

“Understanding of the origin and distribution of mineral resources on the Moon is essential to establishing the economic value of lunar surface materials and supporting the human exploration objectives of the Artemis Program”—NASA’s ambitious project to explore and colonize the moon, he said.

Postdoctoral researcher Ben Farcy, a recent graduate in geology and co-PI, rounds out the UMD development team, which will partner with multiple NASA co-investigators at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. They’re also working with three small businesses with extensive experience in planetary science and instrument development.

In addition to pointing to valuable materials that could support human exploration, the chemical analysis of rocks found on the lunar surface will provide new information about the origins and evolution of Earth’s satellite, the researchers said.

A new subsystem that will be integrated with the instrument enables age determinations while sited on the moon. Understanding the ages of different lunar materials tells us much about the earliest processes that formed the Earth, including its metallic core, McDonough said.

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