Standoff Time-Resolved Laser-Based Spectroscopy Tools for Sample Characterization and Biosignature Detection
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
The NASA Mars2020 rover will be searching for signs of past habitability and past life on Mars. Additionally, the rover mission will prepare a cache of highly significant samples for a future sample return mission. NASA requires these samples to be well characterized; the instruments on the rover must be capable of fine-scale in situ mineralogical or elemental analysis with emphasis on biosignature detection or characterization. We have been developing multiple standoff laser-based instruments at the University of Hawaii, Manoa that are capable of fine-scale in situ chemical analysis and biosignatures detection. By employing a time-resolved spectroscopy, we can perform elemental analysis with Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS), mineral and organic analysis with Raman spectroscopy, and biosignature detection with Laser-Induced Fluorescence (LIF). Each of these techniques share the same optics and detection equipment, allowing us to integrate them into a single, compact instrument. High time-resolution (~100 ns/pulse) is the key to this instrument; with it, the detector only records data when the signal is the brightest. Spectra can be taken during the day, LIBS can be measured without a plasma light background, and the Raman signal can be separated from the mineral fluorescence signal. Since bio-organics have very short fluorescence lifetimes, the new instrument can be used to unambiguously detect bio-organics. The prototype uses a low power (0.5 mJ/pulse) 532 nm laser with a detection limit of < 30 ppm of organics in a sample of Antarctica Dry Valley soil measured from 8 m. Another LIF instrument under development in our lab, called the Biofinder, takes advantage of the extremely intense fluorescence signal produced by organics by using a wide laser spot and a camera to produce LIF images of wide area (25 cm area from 2 m distance with 2 mm/pixel resolution). The Biofinder can quickly assess the area around the rover (at 10 frames/s) by imaging sample cores, drill holes, or outcrops, and then allow the slower but more precise instruments on the rover to characterize the regions of interest. Either of these prototypes would be ideally suited for future NASA missions, including human exploration missions. The next iterations of the instruments will be designed specifically for future astronaut explorers.