China's Mars rover

Medical scanners could evaluate space rocks, Nasa study shows

Image credit: Chinese Space Agency

Extra-terrestrial rocks and other samples collected by Nasa rovers on the Moon, Mars and asteroids could be scanned with medical tools before being returned to Earth.

Searching for creative uses of existing technologies for future manned and unmanned space missions, a team based at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre scanned rock samples from Earth using an industrial X-ray computed tomography, or CT, scanner in order to investigate the possibility of using a similar device to study extra-terrestrial rocks.

The device is a diagnostic tool very similar to standard medical X-ray CT scanners, which are used by doctors to image internal organs, bones and soft tissue in detail. CT scanners allow for non-destructive 3D imaging of materials at an extremely high resolution: at Nasa, for instance, the scanner is used to check faulty machinery to identify defects.

The engineers were able to use this CT scanner to evaluate volcanic rock samples from Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, an island in Tonga which formed in 2015. According to the researchers, the eruption which formed this island has similarities to volcanic activity on Mars.

Next, they used the scanner to evaluate rocks collected from large craters and meteorites on Earth. Even when these rocks were encased in glass and metal cases, the scanner was able to uncover previously unknown minerals and arrangements within the rocks.

“We’re thrilled with our results,” said Justin Jones, the Nasa engineer who led the research. “The demonstrations provided a few new insights into the 3D structure of the samples we tested and underscored the value of potentially creating a CT capability specifically for use in space, especially for triage purposes.”

Using this technology to ‘triage’ rock samples in space would require the room-sized CT scanner to be miniaturised in order to fit on a rocket alongside other equipment.

“Imagine taking something this big and scaling it down to breadbox size, then readying the equipment to be spaceflight-worthy,” said Jones. “Such instruments could be tested on the International Space Station and then transitioned to a future deep space gateway where crew members could analyse new samples from the Moon or asteroids or even Mars before shipping them back to Earth for further analysis.”

“The future of in-situ and sample-based planetary exploration will revolve around new measurement techniques that reveal details at new scales and in ways that do not destroy the samples or contaminate them,” said James Garvin, chief scientist at the Nasa centre.

“I believe that someday, astronauts on Mars or the Moon will be able to use off-planet CT laboratory techniques to do the reconnaissance of extraordinary materials on other worlds just as we do in the labs here on Earth today.”

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