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Pitt researcher hopes to improve NASA’s Mars Rover

A University of Pittsburgh researcher plans to use a $1.12 million grant to improve the type of laser technology used on NASA’s Mars Rover.

The method, called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, or LIBS, also can be helpful to the Department of Homeland Security, said Kevin Chen, co-principal investigator of the study.

“For example, radioactive material, you can use the laser to peel back layers of soil if it’s underneath. Or if you want to inspect a certain site where people developed chemical weapons, this would be the way to detect that,” said Chen, 38, who teaches electrical engineering at Pitt. “It can also be useful in mining or with environmental pollution, if you want to detect that.”

In simple terms, the laser heats the material at which it is pointed. When the material becomes very hot, it produces light, which scientists can analyze to identify the substances present, Chen said.

The Mars Rover blasted a space rock at more than 1 million watts per shot to detect its composition.

“It’s very convenient technology,” said Chen. “The problem is the sensitivity of the laser isn’t high enough.”

Richard Russo, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, said the engineering of the laser depends on its potential use.

The Mars Rover laser, for example, was designed for what NASA wanted to measure on Mars — which would be different than what the Department of Defense wants to measure. The technology has been around since 1962, he said.

“There’s a fairly large worldwide effort to do this,” Russo said. “The statements they’re making are in line with what the community as a whole are making.”

The grant from the Department of Defense extends until 2015 with the option of a two-year extension.

Chen foresees a compact laser shooter beaming into dangerous spaces allowing scientists to conduct remote measurements on potentially toxic or nuclear materials with high sensitivity.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or [email protected].


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