Planetary Exploration Research Laboratory (PERL)

The Planetary Exploration Research Laboratory (PERL) houses more than nine projects that range from fundamental research to enhance the scientific return of NASA missions, to hardware testing and instrument development for current and future missions, respectively. Each project represents APL’s strongest focus areas and depth of capability.

Fundamental research is conducted using the Geological Near-IR Optimized Microspectroscopic Experiment (GNOME), a microscope optimized for measuring small, thin samples of rock in light ranging from visible to mid-infrared wavelengths. This capability helps researchers understand how spectra collected by spacecraft around planetary bodies relate to the mineral and rock composition of those bodies.

In instrument development and hardware testing, engineers are testing the prototype lidar system for NASA’s Dragonfly mission. The instrument will send pulses of laser light to determine the presence, shape and distance of objects on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. Ongoing performance tests are verifying the instrument’s capability to produce the necessary precision for properly identifying ground hazards, such as rocks and slopes, ensuring Dragonfly can land safely as it explores the prebiotic chemistry on Titan’s surface.

APL researchers are also developing the Advanced Multispectral Infrared Microimager (AMIM) and its associated electronics breadboard. Designed with LED arrays that can be customized for specific planetary surfaces and compositions, AMIM is being developed for Dragonfly’s DragonCam Microscopic Imager to produce nine-band multispectral images of Titan’s surface as well as for use on future missions to the Moon’s surface.

PERL also supports team members on iSTART, an ultraviolet-visible (UV-Vis) spectrometer that will autonomously track low-Earth-orbit satellites for space situational awareness. iSTART will also contribute to the scientific understanding of the transmission of Earth’s atmosphere in the UV-Vis spectral range.

Finally, engineers are conducting flight hardware tests on the electronics brass board of the Mini-RF instrument on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. These tests confirm nonstandard command instrument sequences before uploading them to the spacecraft.

PERL also houses a rock crusher, magnetic separator and ultrasonic bath for preparing samples for the Simulated Airless Body Emission Laboratory (SABEL), which supports various missions with thermal infrared spectrometers. A freezer also provides storage for cryogenic samples used to understand the mechanisms and compositions responsible for colors on outer solar icy satellites, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa.