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A New Generation of Sensors for Space Exploration
A New Generation of Sensors for Space Exploration

A collaborative effort between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Delft University of Technology has demonstrated a novel optical sensor for the analysis of the composition and of the origin of geological formations. The image to the left shows the 1024 x 8 sensor integrated with the prototype FPGA board for the time-resolved laser spectroscopy instrument.

illustration of Raman and LIBS processes
Raman and LIBS spectrum examples
Top: Cartoon illustrating microscopic Raman and LIBS processes.
Bottom: Time-resolved Raman and LIBS spectra taken using the new sensor.

A team of researchers at Delft University of Technology, Netherlands and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. has developed and demonstrated a new camera that is able to determine the chemical composition of minerals on a planet’s surface. This demonstration used a single-photon camera with an ultra-fast 700 picosecond shutter to observe and capture elementary particles of light. The camera was integrated into a time-resolved laser spectrometer with a sensor that could determine the chemical composition of minerals based on the light particles.

The team led by Edoardo Charbon (TU Delft), along with Yuki Maruyama and Jordana Blacksberg (JPL), described the sensor in a highlighted paper presented at the recent 2013 IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco. The emphasis of the work presented was the union of the sensor with the JPL time-resolved laser spectroscopy system, which simultaneously performs Raman spectroscopy and LIBS (laser induced breakdown spectroscopy). This concept was introduced by NASA and implemented in solid-state CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) technology by TU Delft’s researchers for the first time in this technology demonstration, and is integral to measuring chemical composition.

This sensor has the potential to revolutionize the field of time-resolved laser spectroscopy by replacing larger and more complex time-resolved detectors, such as streak cameras with this small solid-state sensor. This could make this sensor ideal for use in the next generation of rovers and landers because of its low power dissipation, robust design and light weight. The single-photon camera at the core of the sensor has also been proven to be radiation tolerant; radiation in space is a major source of concern, and electronic circuits need to be designed to sustain large doses of high- and medium- energy radiation. With these advantages over existing technology, this sensor could allow researchers to learn more about a planet’s geological origins and makeup.

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