The Arizona State University Mars program gained plenty of headlines by developing instruments that explored the surface of the Red Planet.
For their next trick, university researchers are seeking uses for that same technology closer to home, and they believe it has applications in the mining industry.
The Mars Space Flight Facility on the Tempe campus developed two complex instruments that have been used on recent Mars probes. The Thermal Emission Imaging System, or THEMIS, was bolted onto the Mars Odyssey, which has been in orbit around Mars since 2001. It contains infrared and visible-light cameras that have been used to look down for minerals that suggest the presence of water, and therefore the possibility of life, on the planet’s surface.
The other is the Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer, or Mini-TES, which was included among the instruments on two Mars Rovers that landed on the planet in January 2004 and helped to analyze the mineralogy of rocks encountered close up by the rovers.
Earlier, the university developed a thermal emission spectrometer to analyze Martian rocks and minerals on the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter launched in 1996.
With modifications, such devices could be used to explore for minerals on earth, said Tim Glotch, a postdoctoral researcher in the Mars program. But so far that’s just a theoretical possibility, he admitted.
"More of them need to be made to shrink the cost to make it economically desirable," he said. "Each one of these instruments costs about $8 million."
Still, ASU professors and students have been thinking about the possibility of making money in the future from their Mars-exploration technology. An exhibit on the program was included in the inaugural ASU Technology Expo last week on the Tempe campus, which showcased technologies emerging from ASU labs that have the potential for commercialization.
As an example of what their instruments can do on earth, the Mars researchers have set up a Rock Around the World program in which students anywhere in the world are invited to send rock samples from their area to the space flight center in Tempe. There they are analyzed by spectrometers like the ones used on Mars with regard to what minerals are in their rocks. The results are posted on the Rock Around the World Web site, http://ratw.asu.edu.
That same capability could be used by geologists to analyze rock samples in the field, eliminating the need to return the samples to a lab, said Dr. Greg Mehall, mission manager for the mars space flight facility. But he thinks the most important application could be using the robot technology to explore in places that are too dangerous for humans such as deep mine shafts.
"The most state-of-the-art aspect of this is the ability to remotely operate a robot and the software to do that," he said.
The Mars scientists have spoken with officials of Phelps Dodge, the Phoenix-based mining company, about the potential of the technology, but no deals have been reached, he said.
Peter Faur, spokesman for Phelps Dodge, declined to comment specifically on the ASU equipment, but he said technology developed for the space program has played an important role in mining exploration.
Specifically, he said a series of thematic mapping satellites have been launched that use spectroscopy to provide information about the mineral composition of the earth. Such satellites also give an indication of what lies below the surface, he said.