Planetary Science: The Time Machine

Planetary Science: The Time Machine

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Over the past few decades, planetary scientists have mapped the Solar System in ever more staggering detail. Cameras orbiting the Moon and Mars can zoom in on objects as small as dinner plates, and radars can penetrate several metres below the surface. But when it comes to the fourth dimension — time — they are as blind as ever. Scientists have hard dates for only nine places in the Solar System, all on the Moon: six Apollo sites and three Soviet Luna sites, from which samples were returned robotically. When did water flow on Mars? When did the Moon’s volcanoes last erupt? Without dates, planetary scientists can only make educated guesses about some of their most pressing questions.

Coaxing out that information is difficult, but Scott Anderson has a plan. Zigzagging across his laboratory is a web of laser beams that feed into a mass spectrometer — all part of a geochronometer that Anderson is building. Like other rock-dating systems, this one computes an age from the radioactive decay of certain isotopes in a sample. What sets Anderson’s system apart is his goal to shrink the whole operation down to something that would fit on a desktop. Then, rather than waiting for planetary fragments to fall to Earth, he wants to send his device to the planets.

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