Matteo Borri Explains: How The Next NASA Mars Rover Will Use Lasers to Search For Life On Mars

By Lisa Rein

The NASA Mars Rover takes a selfie. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

When we last left Matteo Borri and his company, Robots Everywhere LLC, he had built a chlorophyll spectroscope for NASA and the Mars Society, for the next Mars Rover. It uses a laser beam to zap the surface and then detect the reactive chlorophyll from other complex molecules. It was tested successfully over the last few months by the Mars Society, and will fly to Mars in 2020 on the next Mars Rover.

I checked back in with Matteo to see what new and exciting projects he is working on, and to help us better understand the science behind his laser-driven life-detecting inventions.

Matteo Borri is on the Advisory Board for the Swartz-Manning VR Destination. (An Aaron Swartz Day Production)

Lisa Rein: Hey Matteo how’s it going? What’s the latest on your NASA Mars Rover experimental research?

Matteo Borri: Well, if you remember, I had managed to figure out how to make a Chlorophyll detector that did not require cutting up a leaf and putting it in a little box. This is significant because we wanted to be able to mount the laser on a rover and have it scanning the surface as the rover moves along the surface of mars, and notifying the rover to stop when it detects something worth stopping for, like, the presence of Chlorophyll.

So, that worked so well, NASA decided to give me another hard problem to solve; could I develop a spectroscope that would cause a reaction to Tryptophan the way I got the chlorophyll to react to the other spectroscope?

LR: Why Tryptophan? I think of that being in turkey and making you tired on Thanksgiving. When my grandpa played professional baseball, they wouldn’t let them eat turkey on the day of a game.

MB: The sleepiness is an urban legend. We now know that Tryptophan doesn’t make you tired. But it is the same ingredient known to be in turkey.

But just as Chlorophyll exists in every piece of plant life on earth, tryptophan exists in not all but almost all pieces of animal life on earth.

So, if we had one laser spectroscope detecting Chlorophyll molecules, and the other detecting Tryptophan molecules, we will always be able to detect the existence of life (as we know it) there.

LR: We can only look for molecules that we already know to exist in “life” here on planet Earth?

MB: Correct. But we also have good reason to believe that any “life” found on other planets would still actually be composed of the same kinds of molecules found in “life” here.

LR: So the idea is to look for the most basic molecular substances that would have to be there along with anything else that was plant or animal living there.

Photo: NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science Systems

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MarsVR: Explore The Surface of Mars Like A Real Human Mars-bound Astronaut

Congratulations to the Mars Society for reaching its kickstarter goal for MarsVR.

The actual surface of Mars. Photo credit: Nasa/JPL

The long-term goal of the MarsVR program is to enable you to explore Mars in VR using the same ground breaking VR platform that will be used to train the crew members at the Mars Desert Research Station, an analog simulation of Mars in the Utah desert, organized by the Mars Society. the entire VR environment, including all 3-D models and terrain around the MDRS, will be released under open source licenses to be made available to researchers and the general public.

This photo was taken by the Mars Pathfinder on the surface of Mars. The area is known as “Twin Peaks” – Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

MarsVR will be a fully immersive VR Experience that allows you to explore a simulated Mars environment. The Mars Society is pioneering the use of virtual reality for pre-mission crew training, as well as expanding Mars advocacy and outreach among the global community. Training and documentation will also be provided in the hopes that a whole ecosystem can be built around the project. 

MarsVR is one of the first projects of its kind, but I believe it is the kind of system that everyone will be building in the years to come. A VR-enabled datasharing platform has implications for just about every area of scientific research, and may just “change everything” by accelerating breakthroughs at an exponential rate (due to everything being open-sourced and shared with the public).

The Mars Society’s James Burk

Meet James Burk, the IT Director of the Mars Society and the one leading the organization into its first foray of CrowdExploration (an emerging field of collaboration between the first astronauts on Mars and VR experts and enthusiasts back on Earth).

James and his team have a few different phases of the project planned. “Phase 1” will focus on designing training simulations for the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. The simulations that take place there help to provide crucial information and situation preparedness to the participating MDRS crew members, via analog research and testing. These help prepare future astronauts to learn what they can in a simulated environment and make the most of their time on Mars.

The first phase of MarsVR will be focused on the MDRS (Mars Desert Research Station), providing a virtual reality platform for serious research to support the exploration of the “real” Mars in the future. But since it is virtual, we can all come along for the ride.

The Phase 1 goal is to build a complete high-resolution simulation of the entire MDRS habitat, both inside and out. This will ship in October, but there should be a beta finished as early as September 2018.


A few happy crew members at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. Photo Credit: The Mars Society.
A crew looks across the barren landscape of “Mars.” (In the Utah desert.) Photo Credit: The Mars Society.

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