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The Connection Between Mass Spectrometry and Space Exploration

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Mass spectrometry has been used for some pretty fascinating applications in our world – like testing for steroid use in athletes1measuring pesticides in grapes2assessing the efficiency of a psoriasis drug3, and whether that expensive bottle of 100% olive oil is, well, really 100% olive oil.4 But did you know mass spec is also used out of this world? Like… in space?

Yes! Mass spectrometry is one of the key analytical tools used for space exploration. From the very first measurements of gases in our upper atmosphere5, to future missions to Mars6, mass spec has been, and will continue to be, an indispensable part of the hardware being launched on our space crafts.

The obvious application for a space-bound mass spectrometer is to analyze the composition of the atmosphere and terrain of the astronomical bodies it encounters. But another important application is to monitor the air quality on manned space crafts. And although these instruments contain the same basic types of mass analyzers found on earth, the specifications of the instrument in your comfy lab setting will hardly do for a mass spec being launched into the great beyond.  Besides your normal requirements for sensitivity, selectivity, speed, and accuracy, the space instrument must possess a host of top-notch physical attributes. It must be small and light, have reasonable power consumption and be able to withstand high G forces, shock, and vibrations during takeoff and landing. The instrument needs to withstand radiation, extreme temperatures and pressures, and microgravity conditions. And space-bound instruments must be highly reliable, with advanced automation, operational redundancy, and limited disposables and consumables. 

Despite these almost impossible constraints, scientists have persevered and triumphed. From the earliest Apollo missions on the moon, mass spectrometers have been used for atmospheric and sample analysis. The Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) on Apollo 17 in 1972 contained a miniature magnetic deflection mass spectrometer that measured lunar atmospheric composition. The Viking 1 & 2 landers, equipped with GC-MS instruments, touched down on Mars in 1976 and together with the Viking orbiters formed most of the body of knowledge about Mars until the early 2000s7. Interestingly, the images from these orbiters caused a revolution in our ideas about water on Mars, and the search to find existing water began in earnest after that. NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, equipped with a combination high-temperature furnace and mass spectrometer (TEGA) for soil samples, confirmed the existence of water ice on Mars in July 20088. Currently, the Curiosity Rover, equipped with a quadrupole mass spec, is located on Mars at Mount Sharp. As it climbs the foothills of the mountain, it’s taking samples of the different rock layers, hoping to “read Mars like a history book” from its warmer and wetter past to the colder and dryer world it is today.9

But besides the Moon and Mars, probes armed with mass spectrometers have also investigated other astrological entities. The Cassini mission departed for Saturn in 1997 and almost 8 years later was able to release it’s Huygens probe to parachute down to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. As Huygens floated down, it’s GC/MS recorded complex organic compounds – precursors of amino acids necessary for life – present in the murky atmosphere. Currently, Huygens is the most distant Earth-launched craft ever landed.10

And the amazing accomplishments continue. Other notable space explorations that utilized mass spectrometry include the Pioneer and Venera missions to Venus in 1975-1978, the Giotto and VEGA probes to Halley’s comet in 1986, and the Galileo mission to Jupiter in 1995.

Manned spacecraft have also had their share of mass spectrometers. The International Space Station uses mass spectrometry to monitor air quality, Space Shuttles have used mass spectrometry to monitor for propellant leaks, and mass spectrometry has also been used to analyze human breath to study the effects of microgravity on respiratory function and validate contaminant removal in advanced life support systems.5,7

What could be next? How about the sun! NASA plans to launch the Solar Probe Plus into the sun within the next two years. Onboard, a trusty mass spectrometer will carry out its mission to measure the composition of the elements in the sun’s atmosphere, taking measurements of ions as they travel past the spacecraft, and dutifully sending it’s data back to earth – that is, at least until it completely and utterly disintegrates in fiery splendor and becomes part of the very sun itself.11

References:

  1. SCIEX Anti-Doping Enforcement For International Winter Sports Competition Aided By SCIEX Testing Solution
  2. Analysis of Pesticides in Food Samples Using the SCIEX Triple Quad™ 3500 System
  3. An Immunocapture-LC-MS/MS Workflow for Adalimumab and Infliximab Quantitation in Human Plasma
  4. Detection of Adulterant Seed Oils in Extra Virgin Olive Oils by LC-MS and Principal Components Analysis
  5. C.R. Arkin, T.P. Griffin, J.H. Hoffman, T. Limero, , “Chapter 31: Space Applications of Mass Spectrometry” 2010, 130 pages, p 3-5.
  6. M. Wall, “A Manned Mission to Mars Is Closer to Reality Than Ever: NASA Chief”, Space.com, September 18, 2015
  7. P.T. Palmer, T.F. Limero, “Mass Spectrometry in the U.S. Space Program: Past, Present, and Future”, J Am Soc Mass Spectrom, 2001, 12, 656–675
  8. A. Thompson, “Water Ice on Mars Confirmed”, OurAmazingPlanet, July 31, 2008
  9. Press Release, “Curiosity Arrives at Mount Sharp”, mars.nasa.gov, September 11, 2014
  10. “What Happened When Huygens Landed On Titan Eight Years Ago”, Astrobiology Magazine, January 15, 2013
  11. “NASA Aims to Plunge Car-Sized Probe Into the Sun”, Space.com, September 2, 2010.

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