New invention could help in Mars probes' search for life

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Washington, May 25 (ANI): The next generation of Mars rovers could have smaller, cheaper, more robust and more sensitive life-detecting instruments-all thanks to a new invention by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory.

The INL team has come up with an efficient new way to generate complex electric fields, which will make it easier to direct ions, or charged particles, along specified paths.

The researchers have now filed a patent application for their Total Ion Control method, a key advance in the field of mass spectrometry.

Equipment based on TIC could make the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA) - part of the ExoMars mission scheduled for launch in 2018 - a better life-detecting tool.

"This is a novel way to shape electric fields for moving ions around. It can improve MOMA, and it could improve commercial instruments," said INL engineer Tim McJunkin, who helped develop the new technology. "

Mass spectrometry allows scientists to determine a sample's chemical composition.

In some mass spectrometers, a sample - for instance, a few grains of Martian soil - is vaporized, often with a laser. The gas is then ionized, and the charged particles flow through an inlet, down a channel and into an ion trap.

The ions are then identified based on details of their movement, which depend on their mass and electrical charge.

To get ions to stream into the trap - rather than hit the channel walls and "die" - most current mass spectrometers rely heavily on airflow created by pumps.

However, this system is less than ideal for Mars missions; pumps are heavy, and they use a lot of energy.

TIC could assist spectrometers such as MOMA.

New TIC-based ion inlets greatly reduce the need for pumps, getting good ion flow solely by generating versatile, intricate electric fields.

Since ions are charged particles, properly constructed fields can guide ions safely to the trap all by themselves.

A few other ion inlet technologies attempt to do the same thing, but INL's invention boasts many advantages.

Firstly, TIC-based inlets should be cheaper and more robust than their competitors, because they're simpler to construct and have fewer parts.

They use only a single electrode, and they don't need any insulators.

They can be made from many different semi-conducting materials, such as graphite, glass, silicon or polymers.

And the fields TIC inlets can generate are not tied to their own shape, meaning they can be incorporated into a wider range of spectrometer designs.

Because of their simple construction, TIC-based inlets are also much smaller and lighter than other types, weighing less than an ounce.

This minuscule mass is a big plus for space missions, since it currently costs about 10,000 dollars to put one pound of payload into Earth orbit (and far more to get that payload to Mars).

INL's new invention can also be helpful in missions like ExoMars, which is only powered by solar energy.

It requires just 100 milliwatts of power - one thousand times less than a 100-watt light bulb.

And on top of these advantages, TIC delivers outstanding performance. (ANI)

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