At first glance, one of the most stunning achievements in space exploration, an investigation into rickets in sailors who died 470 years ago and cutting-edge cancer research may appear to have little in common.
However, all three have shown the immense potential offered by mass spectrometry and spectroscopy tools which are giving bioscience researchers fascinating information about the world in which we live. And about other worlds, too, because in November 2014, the potential of the technology was brought to global attention when, after a ten year journey in which it travelled more than 6.4 billion kilometres, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft delivered a lander onto a comet, a first for science. To much cheering in mission control, the Philae lander touched down on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and was able to send back vast amounts of data before its position under a rocky outcrop meant that its solar energy faded and it went into hibernation.
One of nine experimental systems on board Philae was a miniaturised mass spectroscopy system which measured isotope ratios in material sampled from the comet’s surface and atmosphere. Constructed with help from Raymond E. March, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemistry at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, and John F.J. Todd, Emeritus Professor of Mass Spectroscopy at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, the use of the system showed how flexible the technology can be for bioscientists. Spectroscopy is the study of light as it breaks into its constituent colours. By examining the colours, researchers can determine the properties of the object being studied because they reflect energy states.
The field is divided into many sub-disciplines, depending on what is being measured, including mass spectrometry which is used for measuring the molecular mass of a sample and has applications in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and the environmental field where it can examine water quality and food contamination.