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...12:51 pm Oct 2, 2002
UA scientists developing Star Trek-like device
By Thomas Stauffer
© ARIZONA DAILY STAR


Star Trek explorers who analyzed objects with a miraculous handheld device had nothing on a pair of UA scientists designing their own version of a "tricorder" for a Mars mission.

Chemist M. Bonner Denton and geoscientist Robert Downs of the University of Arizona are principal investigators on a $1.5 million NASA-funded project to develop a Raman spectrometer slated for a 2009 mission.

Back the rover up to the rock of your choice and the instrument will bounce a laser beam off it and seconds later tell you the rock's chemical composition, not unlike the instruments used in the Star Trek TV series.

"We're building a tricorder, that's pretty much what we're doing," Downs said. "And we've got the dream of someday making it into a handheld instrument that could be used for a variety of applications."

Lots of different methods are used to figure out what a solid or liquid actually is, but most of them involve destroying the sample or placing it in certain containers or media, Denton said.

A Raman spectrometer can analyze most samples by merely pointing at them without sample preparation or modifying their form, he said.

The prototype Denton and Downs have been working on has already been used to test the legitimacy of diamonds in rings of people at the chemistry and geosciences department. Two of the diamonds in the geosciences department turned out to be cubic zirconia, Downs said.

The Raman spectrometer could eventually be used by anyone who wants to test the legitimacy of a solid or liquid. Gemologists buying gems, pharmacists who want to know the purity of a drug, and environmental workers who want to figure out what's in a 55-gallon drum are just a few of the people who could benefit from the technology, Denton said.

"We were working with the Environmental Protection Agency on this because they could take it into the field for rogue dumpsites," Denton said. "If someone dumps a bunch of barrels containing toxic waste in the desert, this is a device you could stick into those barrels to find out what's in them."

The spectrometer works by shooting a laser beam at an object and collecting the different rays of light that bounce back. The vast majority of light gathered has a similar energy to that which the laser sent out, but about one out of a million photons, or particles of light, have a shifted frequency or color. These shifted photons act as fingerprint for the object they're emitted from.

"It's almost like tapping a rock and listening to it ring," Denton said. "Each different mineral has a whole series of complicated bands that are unique, and that's how we identify it."

See Thursday's Arizona Daily Star for the rest of this story.

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