Scientists might soon have a much easier time discovering every last nuance of other planets. Researchers have developed a quantum cascade laser (which sounds like an amazing sci-fi weapon, by the way) that can cover a very wide range of infrared wavelengths at the same time, making short work of detecting many chemicals. Astronomers, including study backer NASA, could use it to determine the contents of a planet's surface without touching it -- important when you'd rather not risk breaking samples, or when it's not possible to touch down on the surface in the first place.
The laser should have plenty of uses here on Earth, as well. It's both portable and works at room temperature, which opens the door to detecting explosives and other chemicals from a distance. Security officials could spot hints of a car bomb even as it goes speeding by, for instance. It'll be a while before the technology is ready for action, but support from NASA, the Department of Homeland Security and Naval Air Systems Command suggests that the laser will go into service sooner rather than later.
[Image credit: Lynette Cook, NASA]