Crystallography in Space

Everybody has heard about the curiosity rover exploring the surface of Mars since its launch in 2011.  But did you know that crystallography is being used as one of the key methods for determining the composition of the surface of Mars?  The Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (or CheMin for short) is a very small X-ray diffractometer which has been designed to be the size of a laptop!  Because of the special X-ray diffraction fingerprint of each different type of material, firing X-rays at powder taken from the surface of the moon can help them to identify the minerals that comprise the planet’s surface.  It will even be used to help determine the presence of water on Mars!  Some minerals contain water within their crystal structures and if these are identified in these experiments, scientists will be able to use this information to investigate whether life has been present on Mars!


Sometimes it can be very hard to grow crystals of sufficient quality to be able to use X-ray diffraction.  This is particularly the case for crystallisation of proteins.  Whilst it is not the most accessible method for crystallisation, using micro-gravity conditions has been shown to help crystallisation of some proteins.  This means that proteins have been crystallised in space!