Researchers have developed an instrument that is not only capable of dating rocks but can be miniaturised for spaceflight to reveal the age of planetary materials.

The key to understanding the geologic history of the solar system is knowing the ages of planetary rocks.

The team validated the instrument – a laser ablation resonance ionisation mass spectrometer – by dating a rock from Mars, the meteorite Zagami which formed about 180 million years ago and fell to Earth in 1962.

“The beauty of the technique is that it requires little sample preparation and the instrument is small and fast, making it appropriate for use by NASA and in field environments here on Earth," said lead author F. Scott Anderson, principal scientist at Texas-based non-profit organisation Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

“In addition to obtaining dates, the instrument can simultaneously provide geochemistry measurements and provide high-sensitivity detection of organics,” he said.

The study was published in the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.