After 6 years in development, the portable forensic analyzer that Goddard scientists are developing with experts in academia, law enforcement, and criminal justice is expected to soon make its debut at a simulated crime scene to test whether the device can detect the presence of blood, gunshot residue, and other materials.
Principal Investigator Jacob “Jack” Trombka, who began thinking of ways to apply NASA exploration technology to forensic science more than 30 years ago, has created a breadboard model of a portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) system that’s similar in concept to those under development for planetary exploration.
Equipped with silicon and cadmium-zinc telluride detectors, the system works by firing X-rays at an object. Atoms on the object’s surface then emit lower-energy fluorescent X-rays that are then detected and analyzed to determine their elemental composition. For instance, certain bodily fluids typically contain high concentrations of zinc, iron, and calcium, while gunpowder contains barium, antimony, and strontium.
The presence of these elements creates a telltale signature that investigators would recognize as potentially suspicious. That way, crime scene investigators would know immediately whether to collect the sample for further analysis or to leave it behind, Trombka said. The beauty of XRF, he added, is that the technology doesn’t destroy the sample it irradiates.
The first demonstration is expected to take place in April at a special simulated crime scene to be set up at Goddard. Trombka said he plans to hold public demonstrations later.
The project, which first began in 1998 under a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Justice, involves investigators from three universities, three state forensic laboratories, one district attorney’s office, and Goddard. However, discussions about developing such a device began 30 years ago when a good friend of Trombka’s — Sam Dash, the former chief Watergate counselor — talked with him about using NASA know-how to advance the technology.
Dash’s suggestion seemed like a good one, Trombka said. Both the forensic community and NASA’s planetary-exploration program would benefit from an analyzer, Trombka said. Now in its final stages of development, Trombka said the device is almost ready for commercialization and discussions have begun with potential manufacturers.
‘This Has Been Fun’
One of the project’s challenges, he said, was developing a system that manufacturers could sell at relatively inexpensive prices. “Another question we had to consider was how to design a system so that it could be calibrated or even repaired remotely,” Trombka said. “We tried to keep much of it digital so that problems could be isolated and repairs could be made in software — not hardware.”
That’s where NASA’s experience helped, he said. Satellite instruments are built to be remotely calibrated.
“I have to be honest,” Trombka said, referring to his 6 years on the project. “This has been fun.”
Goddard Principal Investigator Jack Trombka (right) and two of his Goddard colleagues, Eric Young (left) and Sam Floyd (center), work on the portable forensic analyzer that will soon make its debut at a simulated crime scene.
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