Scientists have created a new sensor that could gather information on rocks during future space missions to the Moon or Mars.

A team from the Faculty of Physics of Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU) has developed a compact spectral polarimeter that can carry out mineralogical investigations on the surface of astronomical bodies.

“Spectral imaging in the near infrared is a promising method for mineralogy analysis, in particular well-suited for airless celestial objects or those with faint atmospheres,” the study states.

Spectral imaging—which measures spectral characteristics for each separate, point of an object—is used as a method to study the surface of astronomical bodies.

Spectral polarimetry gives researchers information about the structure and composition of rock, which scientists use to find out how the light propagation direction changes when the light goes through a mineral.

“The scientific value of this work lies in the creation of a compact and light spectral polarimeter that could be easily installed on a Mars or Moon rover,” Sergey Potanin, a co-author of the article and an associate professor of the Department of Astrophysics and Stellar Astronomy of the Faculty of Physics at MSU, said in a statement.

 The researchers developed a spectral polarimeter that operates in the near infrared range. Based on its own calculations, the researchers created a lab prototype and tested it on the minerals plaster and kaolinite to simulate the surfaces of the Moon and Mars.

“A similar prototype is also being designed for the spectral range from 1.7 to 3.5 µm,” the study states. “This type of the spectro-polarimeter is considered as a potential reconnaissance and analysis tool for future planetary or moon landers and rovers.”

The new device is smaller than its earlier analogs, due to a new compact optical scheme that picks up two images at the same time in two perpendicular polarization planes.

“The main result of our work is development and creation of a prototype spectral polarimeter for mineralogical investigations,” Potanin said. “This device might be used during future missions to Mars or to the Moon.” 

The researchers believe that in the future, similar spectral polarimeters could be used as prospecting tools on planet rovers.

The device was developed in collaboration with scientists from MSU, Russian Space Research Institute, National University of Science and Technology MISiS, and AdlOpticaGmbh (Germany).