Robert Downs: Well, on the 2009 [Mars Science Laboratory] mission nuclear powered machine that they’re going to put up there, lots of power, and they are going to put this little device that’s going to be in the order of 200 cubic centimetres in size and it’s going to sit out as an arm on the rover and it’s going to come up close to the rocks and it’s going to shoot a laser at the rocks. And the laser’s going to excite the atoms, make them vibrate and they’re going to send a signal back - it’s in the order of a million times weaker than the laser and we’ll see these tiny little spots of light that the rock emits and we can use them as fingerprints and we can identify minerals that the rock is made out of.In other words, a small, portable device that can perform laser spectroscopy. And the manufacturer is hoping to commercialize it, since it can do far more than identify minerals:
[Downs:] You can shoot the Raman and the laser goes through that white plastic, it identifies the three parts of Tylenol the aspirin and it tells you what the plastic is made out of. It works on leaves – I can identify the species of trees by shooting their leaves. I don’t think the biologists are aware of this yet. I have a friend who collects snakeskins, I shot the snakeskins and I can identify the species of snake. Last month researchers in Switzerland showed that with the Raman instrument they could detect breast cancer. So we don’t know where this is going, it’s a brand new technology basically made because NASA funded it to make it cheaper, created the new optics and so on. And then we have people like Mike Scott [of Apple Computer, see more in the original article], who’s willing to put their own pocket money out to actually create the databases required to identify things.Hat tip to Samizdata, where Dale Amon calls the device "a real tricorder."