The Mars Science Lab mission and its Curiosity rover, currently en route to the red planet, was the impetus for several cutting edge technology advances as NASA researchers sought to pack as much hardware as possible onto the lightest possible spacecraft. As a result, innovators like David Blake at NASA Ames Research Center had to leverage years of work--in his case, more than two decades of accumulated labor--to shrink an X-ray diffraction device normally the size of a refrigerator to something the size of a briefcase. Curiosity got its lightweight, compact X-ray instrument, but the world got the Terra, the world’s first portable X-ray diffraction device sold commercially by a spinout company called INXITU (now owned by Olympus).
The Terra has enabled researchers in a variety of disciplines to haul X-ray diffraction into the field with them, allowing them to use the technology in a variety of ways that simply weren’t possible before. Mining and mineral exploration companies can use it to check the chemical composition of materials on the spot. The Getty Museum has reportedly used a unit to inspect and evaluate artistic artifacts. It has security applications as a bomb detector. The U.S. Food and Drug Interdiction is reportedly considering using portable X-ray diffraction for drug interdiction, and Blake’s own hobby involves working in the developing world--specifically in Vietnam--to help authorities identify counterfeit pharmaceuticals, a threat that is costly to both public health and pharmaceutical companies. It turns out when big technology is made small enough to travel, it can really go places.