Friday, October 7, 2022

New NASA Laser to Look for Water on Moon

                                        man stands with a tiny laser - rectangle of metal - in a lab, whiteboard behind him.

Dr. Berhanu Bulcha, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, displays a new, tiny laser that could be used to find water on the Moon. (Image Sources: NASA, Michael Giunto)

By Glenn A. Walsh

Reporting for SpaceWatchtower

A tiny, high-powered laser, developed by NASA, may help distinguish water from other hydrogen compounds on Earth's Moon.

Finding water (H2O) on the Moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies NASA astronauts plan to visit someday is essential for advanced exploration of these objects. In addition to drinking water, water is needed for rocket fuel and for creating oxygen (O2) for breathing. Previous experiments have inferred the existence of water on the Moon, but most existing detectors cannot distinguish between water and free hydrogen (H2) ions or hydroxyl (OH-).

Filling a gap in laser technology, NASA's new laser depends on an effect called quantum tunneling to generate a high-powered terahertz laser. Dr. Berhanu Bulcha, an engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, intends to use a heterodyne spectrometer to specifically determine where water is located on the Moon. To do this requires a stable, high-powered terahertz laser, which was prototyped with Longwave Photonics, through NASA's Small Business Innovation Research program.

In a NASA news release, Dr. Bulcha said:

This laser allows us to open a new window to study this frequency spectrum. Other missions found hydration on the Moon, but that could indicate hydroxyl or water. If it’s water, where did it come from? Is it indigenous to the formation of the Moon, or did it arrive later by comet impacts? How much water is there? We need to answer these questions because water is critical for survival and can be used to make fuel for further exploration.”

Spectrometers detect wavelengths of light or spectra, to determine the chemical properties of a piece of matter. While most spectrometers operate over a broad section of the electromagnetic spectrum, heterodyne spectrometers are specific to the infrared or terahertz sections of the spectrum. Water, as with other hydrogen compounds, emit photons in the terahertz section of the spectrum.

A heterodyne spectrometer can distinguish subtle differences within in a bandwidth, such as the terahertz band. Combining a local laser source with incoming light, and then measuring the difference between the laser source and the combined light, can provide very accurate readings between different hydrogen sources.

According to Dr. Bulcha, traditional laser technology falls short within the section of the electromagnetic spectrum known as the terahertz gap, between microwave and infrared radiation.

The problem with existing laser technology,” Dr. Bulcha said, “is that no materials have the right properties to produce a terahertz wave.”

So, taking advantage of research in quantum physics, Dr. Bulcha and his team are developing quantum-cascade lasers. This cascade provides a stable, high-powered laser beam, while generating less voltage than normal lasers. While the laser beam from a quantum-cascade laser does spread-out more quickly than most lasers, Goddard's Internal Research and Development has been able to integrate the laser on a wave-guide, to tighten the beam.

This new laser's small size and low power consumption allows it to fit into a 1-Unit-sized Cube-Sat (very small satellite), about the size of a teapot. This includes the spectrometer hardware, processor, and power supply.

The small size would allow it to fit in a hand-held device, to be used by future astronauts on the Moon, Mars, and other planets, moons, and asteroids. Dr. Bulcha intends to make such a flight-ready laser available for NASA's Artemis program, returning astronauts to the Moon later this decade.

Internet Links to Additional Information ---

NASA News Release - "NASA Engineer Develops Tiny, High-Powered Laser to Find Water on the Moon": Link >>>

Spectrometer: Link >>>

Terahertz Radiation: Link >>>

Terahertz Laser: Link >>>

Quantum Tunneling: Link >>>

Quantum-Cascade Laser: Link >>>

Cube-Sat: Link >>>

Related Blog-Post ---

"UPDATE: Live-Stream: NASA Artemis I to Orbit Moon - Launch Perhaps Nov. 12." Link >>>

Source: Glenn A. Walsh Reporting for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss          

               Friday, 2022 October 7.

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Glenn A. Walsh, Informal Science Educator & Communicator                                                               (For more than 50 years! - Since Monday Morning, 1972 June 12):
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Formerly Astronomical Observatory Coordinator & Planetarium Lecturer, original Buhl Planetarium & Institute of Popular Science (a.k.a. Buhl Science Center), Pittsburgh's science & technology museum from 1939 to 1991.
Formerly Trustee, Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, Pittsburgh suburb of Carnegie, Pennsylvania.
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