Scientists from the Accelerator Technology & Applied Physics (ATAP) Division at Berkeley Lab have teamed up with researchers from NASA to develop a powerful imaging tool for probing the surface composition of planets.

The three-year project, “INSPECT3R: In Situ, Nuclear Spectrometer with 3D Resolution,” is supported by funding from NASA’s Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations program. It aims to develop the next generation of nuclear spectrometers capable of imaging (in three dimensions) the surface’s elemental composition as part of future landed missions to other planets.

The INSPECT3R is based on a technique called Associated Particle Imaging (API), which uses neutrons and gamma rays to create three-dimensional images of the elemental composition of objects.

The technology will solve many limitations in current planetary spectrometers, explains Arun Persaud, a staff scientist at ATAP’s Fusion Science & Ion Beam Technology Program, who has extensive experience designing and using API systems and is leading ATAP’s contribution to the project. “For example, the API systems we have been developing at ATAP can account for the background radiation, which is a major source of uncertainty in the signals measured by existing spectrometers.”

While current spectrometers are highly sensitive to background radiation generated by the lander structure and other background sources, which interfere with their measured signals, INSPECT3R collects additional spatial information that allows it to filter out these background sources and focus on a target area.

“This,” says Persaud, “will increase the sensitivity and precision of the instrument when probing the surface and allows it to be seamlessly integrated with a planetary lander or rover.”

The goal of INSPECT3R is “to learn more about the creation and evolution of our solar system through the measurement of planetary surface compositions,” says Mauricio Ayllon Unzueta, a postdoctoral researcher in the Astrochemistry Division at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the Principal Investigator for science on the project. Before joining NASA, Ayllon Unzueta worked with Persaud on the development of API systems at Berkeley Lab while completing his doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I’m looking forward to joining forces again with Arun to show that INSPECT3R can measure all sorts of elements and to make the components of the instrument more compact and low-powered for successful future space missions.”

The team is led by Ann Parsons, an Astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who also has a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

When deployed, the instrument could help answer some fundamental questions in planetary science, geochemistry, and astrobiology.