A mention for three recent photonics stories I’ve covered:

The business end of the Mars Science Laboratory touched down on Mars, surviving a landing sequence that looked tough on paper and practically suicidal in the animations. Curiosity promptly took some high-definition pictures that made Mars look like the service road at your average quarry, splendidly enough. There’s a laser on Curiosity, designed to fire at nearby rocks and do spectroscopy on the plasma that comes off, and it too seems to have survived the trip without blowing a fuse. It fired at a rock that looked a lot like basalt; it was basalt. Early days. But fair play to Nasa; this is all a very long way from the bad old days of the Climate Orbiter, a probe sent to Mars that was inadvertently programmed for Andromeda. A longer article about the science behind the ChemCam instrument may be along in due course, all being well.

Meanwhile, DARPA is calling for proposals from companies with a vision of what ultra-fast lasers might be useful for in the future, and how to manufacture the systems that might stand a realistic chance of getting those jobs done. This is hard-core blue-sky thinking: “Literally any technology that uses electromagnetic radiation could be impacted,” says the man from DARPA, although in practice the technologies of value to the US military will inevitably be the ones that get the initial momentum.

Tiny laser-projectors able to shine a high-definition image from a hand-held unit have been promised for ages, but stumbling blocks kept cropping on. The most significant one used to be obtaining the right kind of green laser source, since the designer of the universe went out of Her way to make that tricky. Those sources are finally turning up, but now the physical size of the unit is not always very conducive to putting it in a pocket phone – as The Goodies pointed out decades ago, the trick is to wear the special trousers. But in the meantime, automotive companies have zeroed in on pico-projectors as a way to build a better heads-up display, and that’s an application where the projectors could fit right in. MicroVision has just received $5 million from Pioneer towards that very aim; this after the company rejigged its entire business model to try and stop the cash from flowing in the wrong direction.

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