Czech scientists developing space “microscope” that could help map out Solar System

Solar System

Scientists at the Heyrovský Institute of Physical Chemistry are developing a next generation measuring device that could help in future attempts to mine asteroids in space. Called HANKA, the machine should be able to determine the compositions of atoms and molecules on remote space objects, thereby allowing for the better mapping of resources and even possible extra-terrestrial life forms in our solar system.

Ján Žabka | Photo:  Heyrovský Institute of Physical Chemistry,  Czech Academy of Sciences

“To give you an idea about how HANKA can contribute, the previous analysers in space had a resolution equivalent to you looking through your eyes. But now, we are looking through a microscope,” Ján Žabka from the Heyrovský Institute of Physical Chemistry at the Czech Academy of Sciences attempts to summarise the microwave-size device that they are working on. HANKA are the Czech initials for what the scientists dub a “Weight Analyser for Cosmic Applications”.

Its main goal, Žabka says, is to determine the composition of unknown space samples with the highest possible resolution.

Photo:  Heyrovský Institute of Physical Chemistry,  Czech Academy of Sciences

“For example, the weight of a gold atom is approximately the same as the weight of other molecules composed of other atoms. Only a high resolution analyser can distinguish between the two cases.

“A fleet of spectrometers of HANKA’s type could analyse interesting objects in the Solar System and create a map of important components for the future generation of space explorers.”

Conceptually, the device is based on an ion trap mass analyser called “Orbitrap”, which was developed by the Russian physicist Alexander Makarov during the 1990s. The device converts trapped ions into a mass spectrum which is then analysed for frequencies. The scientists at the Heyrovský Institute have bought one of these Orbitraps and are adjusting it to fit the demanding conditions of space.

Photo:  Heyrovský Institute of Physical Chemistry,  Czech Academy of Sciences

Likening space colonisation to the past Age of Exploration, Ján Žabka says that HANKA could help humanity access the immeasurable wealth hidden in the Solar System.

“To give you an example, it is estimated that a single asteroid, 500m in diameter, could contain as much platinum as has ever been found on Earth.

“In the belt between Mars and Jupiter alone, there should be around a million asteroids. Many of them are hundreds of kilometres in diameter. For example, NASA has estimated that the value of it could be around 700 billion dollars.”

HANKA is not just useful for a future gold rush either. The scientists that are working on the project highlight that asteroids contain other atoms and molecules that could help human space exploration missions. For example, the water found by HANKA on asteroids could be used either by the astronauts themselves, or be further split into hydrogen and oxygen to serve as a spaceships propellant.

Photo:  Heyrovský Institute of Physical Chemistry,  Czech Academy of Sciences

The team of scientists is hoping that their device will be sent into space for testing as part of the SLAVIA mission that is set to take place in five years’ time. There it would conduct a composition analysis of the small meteorites that are colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere.

Enceladus | Photo:  NASA,  public domain

If HANKA is accepted and conducts its mission successfully, there are also hopes among the Czech scientific community that the device could find a place on many future space exploration missions, as high resolution spectrometers are currently sought after by both NASA and the European Space Agency.

HANKA, the team believes, could even be used in the search for extra-terrestrial life in the solar system, such as on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, whose water-vapour plumes that jut out of its ice covered sea have been identified as candidates for containing primitive life forms.