Science

Tiny quantum cascade laser could help astronauts find water on the Moon

Engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have developed a tiny however highly effective laser that could sooner or later help astronauts find water on the Moon. Smaller than a US quarter, the laser makes use of quantum mechanical results to supply a beam in the terahertz (THz) vary, which may spotlight hidden water.

For over a decade we’ve identified for certain that there’s water on the Moon, because of missions like Chandrayaan-1. This orbiter imaged the lunar floor with a spectrometer that measured the reflection and absorption of various wavelengths of sunshine, which may reveal the composition of the materials current, together with water molecules.

As helpful as these devices have been, they did not have the sensitivity to distinguish between water and comparable varieties like free hydrogen ions and hydroxyl. More exact devices known as heterodyne spectrometers focus on tighter frequency ranges, by combining the incoming mild with that from a laser in the system, then measuring the distinction between the two mild sources.

The Goddard engineers designed considered one of these units that could tune in to the THz frequencies of water. Existing oscillators and lasers that generate THz waves are cumbersome, heavy and energy-hungry techniques, however they managed to shrink their design all the way down to the measurement of a coin. To accomplish that, the group tapped into some unusual quantum quirks.

Goddard engineer Berhanu Bulcha holds the tiny quantum cascade laser

NASA/Michael Giunto

The group’s system is what’s generally known as a quantum cascade laser, which is made up of a collection of ultra-thin layers of semiconductor supplies. Emitted photons enter this gauntlet of limitations – and since the layers are so skinny, there’s an elevated likelihood that the photons will merely ignore the limitations and seem on the different aspect, in a phenomenon known as quantum tunneling.

When a photon reaches the different aspect, it excites different photons, so by the time they move via the 80 to 100 layers stacked in the system, the finish result’s a cascade of photons with power on the THz scale. A waveguide and skinny optical antenna maintain the beam targeted for longer.

The group says that even with its energy provide, processor and spectrometer {hardware}, the complete system could match into a tool the measurement of a teapot. That means it’s in the realm of chance that future astronauts could use a handheld model to dowse for water on the Moon, Mars or different our bodies.

While there’s nonetheless work to be executed, the researchers plan to build a flight-ready model for NASA’s upcoming Artemis program, which is able to see people return to the Moon by 2024.

Source: NASA

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