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November 05, 2009— Ottawa, Ontario

An NRC-led international research team, in partnership with Canadian space instrument manufacturer COM DEV, is developing a thumbnail-sized spectrometer for use on satellites and planetary probes. The tiny instrument will be capable of monitoring water vapour in Earth's atmosphere — and possibly on other planets, as well.

By measuring atmospheric water content from satellites, scientists can help track weather and climate patterns, or better understand the effects of greenhouse gases and human activities on the environment. In addition, the search for water vapour on other planets is one of the main goals of space exploration since liquid water is required for life as we know it.


A silicon waveguide spectrometer. A two dollar coin indicates scale.

To monitor water vapour remotely, researchers at the NRC Institute for Microstructural Sciences (NRC-IMS) in Ottawa — in partnership with York University, COM DEV International Ltd. and the University of Madrid in Spain — have designed a compact "microspectrometer" that measures wavelengths at which water vapour absorbs sunlight, providing a unique signature of atmospheric water vapour. Microspectrometers can also be designed to monitor other atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, the key gases involved in global warming.

The 1.4 x 2 centimetre device is a launch-friendly version of traditional spectroscopy equipment used in science labs around the world. "The miniaturization of space-borne remote sensor systems is an important technological goal," says Dr. Pavel Cheben, a researcher at NRC-IMS. "The cost of launching complex delicate instruments into space is amplified by factors such as mass, volume and alignment stability requirements."

Did you know?

The "end-to-end" cost of creating a remote sensing instrument to operate in space (including design, development and prototyping) ranges from $100,000-$1,000,000 per kilogram.

Fit for space travel

One of the main challenges in developing space-borne instruments is to make sure that the delicate alignment of optical components is maintained in space, he adds. "The alignment must endure the rocket launch and the influences of thermal distortions at the orbit — for example, with the sun on one side of the craft and deep space on the other." The instrument must then be able to operate unattended and reliably for extended periods in space.

To satisfy these criteria, the research team came up with a tiny silicon-based chip that has no moving parts. "Our device analyzes all wavelengths simultaneously, so the measured spectrum is not affected by vibrations or rapidly flickering light sources and fast scene changes," Dr. Cheben explains.

Funding for this research was provided by the Canadian Space Agency, the Ontario Centres of Excellence, NRC, COMDEV Ltd. and York University.

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