Project Overview

Supporting the development of a spaceflight dating spectrometer

Faculty Sponsor

Jonathan Levine (


Physics and Astronomy


Professor Jonathan Levine (Physics and Astronomy) seeks two students in Summer 2018 to help support the development of a rock-dating mass spectrometer for spaceflight.   In the long term, we hope to date rocks encountered by spacecraft missions on the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere in the Solar System, to better understand the chronology of Solar System history.
Professor Levine is a member of a 3 member research team working on successive miniaturizations of prototype instruments installed at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.  Each instrument uses a technique called resonance ionization mass spectrometry, in which we use intense lasers to excite the atomic transitions specific to elements we seek to measure, such as rubidium and strontium.  These elements are significant because the isotope 87Rb decays at a known rate to 87Sr; essentially, the lasers serve to optically separate the isotopes of these elements, which is otherwise challenging because they have the same atomic mass.  We have used an older generation prototype to date a Martian meteorite and a terrestrial rock that is a geochemical analogue of lunar samples.  
As we transition from a lab-scale prototype to a flight-scale one, we are presently (1) learning how best to operate our latest and smallest-yet mass spectrometer, which is only about the size of a toaster oven; (2) learning how to use fiber lasers to replace the 10,000x larger dye lasers to which we are accustomed; and (3) demonstrating our scientific capabilities, by dating rock samples of increasing technical difficulty, such as meteorites from the Moon.
The proposed summer research projects will chiefly involve analysis of data acquired on the instrument at Boulder, with the aim of diagnosing its failure modes and its pathways to successful operation.  In years past, students have made important contributions to understanding the large datasets we routinely generate, and students have co-authored presentations at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conferences and elsewhere.
Students in these positions will develop their abilities to analyze and to rigorously estimate statistical confidence in quantitative data, and they will experience first-hand the design phase of a spacecraft mission.  In addition, they will participate in the process of turning fundamental physics into a new technology, by optimizing how traditional physics tools such as lasers and high-voltage power supplies are put to use in the non-traditional application of dating rocks in situ.      

Student Qualifications

The ideal students for these projects will

Number of Student Researchers

2 students

Project Length

8 weeks


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If you have questions, please contact Karyn Belanger (