Astrophysicists have designed a portable device that can measure the flux, velocity and mass of dust particles that float at altitudes where spacecraft orbit Mars1. This ability will help trace the origins of the dust particles.
Tiny meteorites bombard the natural satellites of Mars, ejecting dust particles that travel to the red planet. While zipping past the Sun, asteroids and comets also lose dust-rich gas that contributes to the formation of the Martian dust. However, there is no consensus view on the origins of such dust particles on Mars.
Scientists from the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, India, have invented a prototype device that contains a target material made of a gold plate and different electronic components.
To test its dust-detecting potential, the device was exposed to an extremely short laser pulse that ablated the target material, producing plasma of ions and electrons. The electrons and ions were then extracted simultaneously using negatively and positively biased electrodes. This generates a signal that is then passed to a charge amplifier and other electronics to measure the mass, velocity and flux of dust particles.
The device, weighing two kilograms, can detect particles with sizes between 100 nm and five micrometres. The mass of these particles is in the range of nanograms and even lighter than that.
The device could measure actual dust flux coming to Mars. Since such dust particles generate ions that can block radio communication, the device will be very useful for planning future missions to Mars.