Lasers are vaporizing materials including rocks and steel in order to allow scientists to analyze their chemical composition in transference of such techniques from Mars probes to forensics. “Thanks to its relatively small size and low cost, laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy is emerging from the laboratory and turning into a precise tool for figuring out what something is made of. What had been a technique largely for scientists now can be transformed into a tough, small system that can be operated by a technician instead of a PhD. ‘The same things that make it amenable to go to Mars also make it amenable to go out in the field,’ said Jose Almirall, a chemist at Florida International University who has a grant from the Department of Justice to explore how crime labs can use the technology. NASA will be deploying a LIBS system called the ‘ChemCam’ on its new Mars rover, now named Curiosity and scheduled to launch next year. LIBS works by blasting a material with a high-energy laser pulses. The Mars Curiosity rover will send an average of three pulses a second, each one 5 nanoseconds long. The power during that pulse is in the range of 10 megawatts. That’s not enough to shoot a hole in your hand, but it’ll leave a mark. ‘I’ve shot myself and you might see a little spot where you shot yourself, if it’s just one laser shot,’ said Roger Wiens, a space scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who developed the ChemCam for the Mars Curiosity mission.”
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