Nanotechnology tool sent to Mars

The company Nanoscience Instruments in its Scanline newsletter (PDF, Vol. 2, Issue. 2) lets us know that one of their nanotechnology products, the Nanosurf atomic force microscope, is on its way to Mars. Excerpts:

Onboard the Phoenix lander is a suite of sophisticated scientific instrumentation including a weather station, an optical microscope, and a high-resolution Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). The advanced AFM is the first ever utilized in space and will analyze Martian soil samples in greater detail than ever before. By resolving nanometer scale features in 3D, the AFM will help determine whether or not liquid water ever existed on Mars, or if fluidic transport ever occurred.

Nanosurf, the University of Neuchatel, and the University of Basel were part of a Swiss consortium challenged to equip the Phoenix lander with a space-adapted atomic force microscope. Nanosurf’s AFM design was selected because of its outstanding lightweight of just 320 grams, its low voltage requirements, and its varied robust features. The Mars-bound AFM is designed to achieve a resolution of 10 nanometers in an image range of 10 micrometers. For redundancy, it is equipped with 8 addressable sensors and cantilevers on a single chip. The AFM can be operated in static or dynamic mode, enabling it to image loose Martian soil particles without disturbing them. After imaging each sample, the AFM’s micro computer system, backed by the Lander computer, will relay the acquired data back to earth.

I don’t think that 10 nm resolution is state of the art for AFMs, but apparently it does the job for this Mars mission. —Christine

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