The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is most commonly known for sending astronauts into space, but a vast majority of NASA launches involve the deployment of satellites and probes with highly specialized tools. Powerful cameras are one such tool, which capture incredible images from space. But to understand the composition of a planet’s atmosphere, magnetosphere, or lithosphere, much more obscure and highly sensitive instrumentation is needed.
Here are five such instruments in NASA’s toolbox that you probably didn’t know about.
Mass spectrometers are used in probes that will fly through a planet’s atmosphere, such as the Cassini or Huygen’s crafts that visited Saturn and its moons. The “mass specs” on these probes work by measuring the mass-to-charge ratios of any atom or molecule that enters it. Because these ratios are usually very specific, scientists can then identify which chemicals are present. These tools told us that the atmosphere of Titan is composed primarily of molecular nitrogen, just like Earth.
Cassini also carries a tool that has never flown before in the outer solar system, a Magnetospheric Imager. This instrument allows scientists to understand both the atmospheres and magnetospheres of celestial bodies by sensing ions and neutral particles that have been heaved out by that body’s magnetosphere. In this sense, this instrument is not directly measuring the magnetosphere but rather the consequences of its actions on small particles and atoms.
These instruments are a little dated, having been used in some of the first NASA probes of Voyager and Galileo, but they are still very interesting. These instruments measure the electric fields of plasmas, which can tell scientists about lighting in a planet’s atmosphere or how coronal mass ejections from the Sun produce plasma waves that travel out through the solar system.
This is really a fancy word for a heat camera, because it measures the intensity of infrared radiation in a target area. Similar cameras are also widely used here on earth in fields of industry, medicine, agriculture, electronics, and security. Infared Cameras Inc is a company that creates these infared and thermal cameras for NASA. Because different materials emit and reflect heat in different ways, an infrared radiometer is very useful in understanding the composition and thermal properties of any given target.
Polarimeters measure the direction and intensity of light polarization, which is useful in attempting to understand the composition or structure of an object. For NASA, these are usually combined with other instruments and the resulting data is carefully analyzed to reveal information about a planet’s lithosphere (surface) and atmosphere.
Because space probes and satellites are so expensive, NASA spends a lot of time designing its spacecraft to make very precise and accurate measurement that will reveal unknown information about our planet and the space that surrounds us. Although regular cameras and telescopes are useful in visualizing our universe, there are many other ways of perceiving it. Measuring atomic weights and charges, magnetic fields, thermal reflectance, and polarization allows us to explore our unseen world. With these five interesting tools you probably didn’t know about, NASA has been showing us what telescopes and cameras never could.