Ask Matteo Borri: What Do The Methane Patterns On Mars Tell Us About The Possibility of Life There?

By Lisa Rein

The Curiosity Rover has found that the levels of the complex molecule “Methane” on Mars vary with its seasons, just like here on Earth. Credit: NASA/GSFC

You can see many of Matteo Borri’s creations at Robots Everywhere, LLC. He is a member of the Swartz-Manning VR Destination‘s Advisory Board. (The Swartz-Manning is an Aaron Swartz Day Production.)

NASA made an announcement recently about its latest finding about Mars.  Specifically, they found Methane, which clearly suggests that life is either there now, or was there, a long time ago.

Lisa Rein: Matteo, would you please summarize the implications of the Methane material NASA found on Mars?

Matteo Borri: Well, we already knew that there is Methane on Mars. What is interesting and new is that we have now figured out it comes out of the ground seasonally.

Methane on Earth mostly comes about by biological means, from bacteria, but surprisingly enough, the large share of it that comes out of cows’ hindquarters is enough to muddle the data, so we are not sure about it.

However, there is also a seasonal component to how much of it is released in the atmosphere. We now know that Methane is released during the summer and fall. On earth, Methane is also released seasonally. Typically during the end of summer.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

LR: So is part of the excitement that Mars is exhibiting more Earth-like characteristics?

MB: Yes. It’s one more point in common between the two planets.

LR: When they say they’ve found “organic compounds” one of the complex molecules required for life,” what does that mean?

MB: It means that there are complex molecules. “Organic compound” simply means a non-simple molecule containing Carbon. Historically, it was thought that only life-related processes could make those, but we’ve known that this is not the case for more than a century now. (However, the name stuck, which can cause confusion.)

LR: The NASA article said “It should take methane several hundred years to break apart in the presence of UV light, but that’s not what happened on Mars. The surge in methane seems to fade as quickly as it appears, indicating there’s not just a variable source, but a methane sink as well.” What the heck is a “methane sink?”

MB: A methane sink is a type of rock that absorbs methane when the condition for it. Carbonate rocks will fit the bill; so will Granite.

LR: What’s the connection between the Tryptophan that we just learned about in the last article, and these “complex molecules required for life” such as Methane?

MB: If we find Tryptophan, we know that we’ve got a life sign. Methane is actually a simple molecule, five atoms total, and can come about in an inorganic way.

Finding Methane in some parts of Mars, and not others, raises many interesting questions about the Methane’s origin. Might we have stumbled upon ancient Methane deposits from hardy bacteria that are no longer living? Or something else entirely?

There isn’t enough data right now. We have to go back and look, but this recent discovery gives us a place to start looking. It’s never a bad thing if you have even a hint of where to land your rover.

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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

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

Meet Matteo Borri & His Most Recent Inventions

Matteo Borri is an Advisory Board member for the Swartz-Manning VR Destination (a project of Aaron Swartz Day).

By Lisa Rein

Matteo Borri is an inventor and engineer in San Rafael, California that is currently working with NASA and the Mars Society. His chlorophyll detector will be included on the equivalent of the next Mars Rover.

Matteo’s company, Robots Everywhere LLC, has been working with NASA to create three different prototypes for detecting Chlorophyll in unchartered territory. These devices use “chlofluorescence” to detect the presence of Chlorophyll. They are all handheld devices that can be used indoors or outdoors, and are often operated using a simple Android phone.

Matteo Borri in his San Rafael shop – March 2018

 

LR: So how did you discover this technique for detecting Chlorophyll?

MB: I got the idea from an experiment I did in college. I wanted to build a day-for-night filter that didn’t use any post processing. What I ended up with instead was a filter that would show green fabric one color, and green plants of the same hue another color. Adding a laser to that in order to only “trip” the right fluorescent frequency was done by trial and error.

LR: And when we are detecting Chlorophyll, we are essentially looking for “life” on another planet, right?

MB: Yes. Mars is not seismically active like for example Europa is, so the Sun would be needed to put energy into anything living. If it doesn’t use chlorophyll, it will use a molecule that has to work in a similar way, so it will have to react to sunlight in a similar
way.

Photo 1 (above) – A rendering of chlorophyll molecules

 

Photo 2 (above): A microscopic picture of actual chloroplasts inside plant cells.

LR: So, what’s “chlofluorescence” exactly? Is it as simple as a color shade? Or is there something more complex being detected?

MB: Chlorophyll is a lot more efficient than solar panels, but it’s not 100% efficient. So, it transmits out some of the light it receives back out. The tricky part is detecting it! It’s a bit like trying to see a weak LED turning on or off in sunlight.

LR: So was the review basically: This works great! Except 1) we need to make sure a flourescent green sharpy marker doesn’t work and 2) we need a larger interface to accommodate the astronauts clunky gloves? 🙂

Photo 3 (above): A screenshot of the Chlorodetector Interface, running on an older Motorola Android phone.

MB: Yes. There are a few false positives, notably green fluorescent markers — not a big surprise there given that they are green and fluorescent! — but if we find those on Mars, well, someone has beat us there. As for the gloves, it was a complaint from a research team: the real instrument is not going to have a touch screen, but it was cheaper to wire in a phone (with a touch screen) as the camera and CPU than work from scratch, for the purpose of this test.

LR: Tell me about this stuff you invented to help Puerto Rico. It is really interesting. The solar cell phone charger and the thing you call a “Vampire Charger,” that enables you to get whatever battery power is left out of any battery without the danger of blowing up your phone if the voltage doesn’t match.

MB: Yes. I named it the “Vampire Charger.” It is an inefficient but flexible device which will take any voltage that you might find in the world – from 1.5 volts to 12 volts – to even 110! (That’s when it stops, as 220 will blow it up, but 220 is not a common voltage in the U.S., so if you’re over here, it’s not a problem. I’ll have to come up with an European adapter 🙂

LR: So this is for when something bad has happened, obviously, and you need whatever power you can get, right?

MB: Yes. The idea is that you can use it with any kind of source of power that still works. You don’t know the voltage, you don’t know the current. You don’t even know which is plus and which is minus. You don’t even know if it’s AC or DC!

It has two alligator clips.You connect them to ANY two contacts of the part in question, in any way. (To be clear: the color it doesn’t even matter, in this case.) And it gives you USB power, safely! Read more “Meet Matteo Borri & His Most Recent Inventions”