The device, called a laser isotope ratio-meter, was developed from bulkier laser techniques that needed samples to be collected and brought to them. The new device, developed by the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in England, is small enough that it could be used in space to detect trace gasses in small samples.
“You take a laser, whose optical frequency or ‘color’ can be continuously adjusted, beam it at a gas sample, and detect the level passing through the gas,” said Damien Weidmann, Laser Spectroscopy Team Leader at RAL Space. “Each molecule, and each of its isotopic forms, has a unique fingerprint spectrum. If, on the other hand, you know what you are looking for, you can simply set the laser to the appropriate frequency.”
Through an ESA program, Weidmann and his colleagues have been able to demonstrate that the laser can quickly detect counterfeit food. Fake honey made using sugar, for example, would be detected by the laser by scanning the carbon dioxide released from burning only a few milligrams of the product. Likewise, counterfeit olive oil and chocolate could also be detected.
Though Weidmann said it was important for his project to attract interest from industry, sending the laser to Mars is his real goal.
“I wanted to develop this to help gather evidence as to whether or not there was life on Mars,” said Weidmann.
Weidmann stated that using the laser to measure carbon isotopic ratios in methane on Mars could help determine where the hydrocarbon came from.
“If it’s bacterial in origin, it would mean a form of life occurred on Mars.”