SHERLOC And The Search For Life On Mars

Humanity has been wondering about whether life exists beyond our little backwater planet for so long that we’ve developed a kind of cultural bias as to how the answer to this central question will be revealed. Most of us probably imagine that NASA or some other space agency will schedule a press conference, an assembled panel of scientific luminaries will announce the findings, and newspapers around the world will blare “WE ARE NOT ALONE!” headlines. We’ve all seen that movie before, so that’s the way it has to be, right?

Probably not. Short of an improbable event like an alien spacecraft landing while a Google Street View car was driving by or receiving an unambiguously intelligent radio message from the stars, the conclusion that life exists now or once did outside our particular gravity well is likely to be reached in a piecewise process, an accretion of evidence built up over a long time until on balance, the only reasonable conclusion is that we are not alone. And that’s exactly what the announcement at the end of last year that the Mars rover Perseverance had discovered evidence of organic molecules in the rocks of Jezero crater was — another piece of the puzzle, and another step toward answering the fundamental question of the uniqueness of life.

Discovering organic molecules on Mars is far from proof that life once existed there. But it’s a step on the way, as well as a great excuse to look into the scientific principles and engineering of the instruments that made this discovery possible — the whimsically named SHERLOC and WATSON.

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Hackaday Links: December 26, 2021

At the time of this writing, the James Webb Space Telescope was perched upon its ride to space, ready for its much-delayed launch from the ESA spaceport in French Guiana. The $10 billion space observatory suffered one final delay (knocks on wood) when predictions of high winds aloft pushed it back from a Christmas Eve launch to a Christmas Day departure, at 12:20 UTC. Given the exigencies of the day, we doubt we’ll be able to watch the launch live — then again, past experience indicates we’ll still be wrapping presents at 4:20 PST. Either way, here’s hoping that everything comes off without a hitch, and that astronomers get the present they’ve been waiting many, many Christmases for.

In other space news, things are getting really interesting on Mars. The ESA announced that their ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has detected signs of water in the Valles Marineris. The satellite found a large area of increased hydrogen concentration in the top meter of Martian soil; the assumption is that the hydrogen comes from water, meaning that as much as 40% of the material in the region scanned may be water. If so, that’s a huge find, as we thought most of Mars’ water was locked in the polar regions. The Mariner Valley stretches more than 4,000 km just below the equator, and so may prove to be an important resource for future explorers.

Meanwhile, in Jezero crater, Perseverance has decided to upstage its rotorcraft sidekick for a change by finding signs of organic molecules on Mars. It’s not the first time organic compounds have been found — Perseverance’s cousin Curiosity found some too, ESA’s Mars Express mission spotted methane from on high, and then there were the equivocal but intriguing results from the Viking missions in the 1970s. But the latest evidence is really great news for the scientists who picked Jezero crater as a likely place to search for signs of past life on Mars. The organics found are not proof of life by any means, as there are many ways to make organic molecules abiotically. But then again, if you’re going to find evidence of life on Mars, you’ve got to start with detecting organics.

Back on Earth, getting your laptop stolen would be bad enough. But what if it got yoinked while it was unlocked? Depending on who you are and what you do with that machine, it could be a death sentence. That’s where BusKill could come in handy. It’s a hardware-software approach to securing a laptop when it — or you — suddenly goes missing. A dongle with a breakaway magnetic lanyard gets plugged into a USB port, and the other end of the lanyard gets attached to your person. If you get separated from your machine, the dongle sends customizable commands to either lock the screen or, for the sufficiently paranoid, nuke the hard drive. The designs are all up on GitHub, so check it out and think about what else this could be useful for.

If you like the look of low-poly models but hate the work involved in making them, our friend and Hack Chat alumnus Andrew Sink came up with a solution: an online 3D low-poly generator. The tool is pretty neat; it uses three.js and runs completely in-browser. All you have to do is upload an STL file and set sliders to get rid of as many triangles as you want. Great stuff, and fun to play with even if you don’t need to decimate your polygons.

And finally, what have you done with your oscilloscope for the last three years? Most of us can’t answer that except in the vaguest of terms, but then there’s DrTune, who took three years’ worth of screencaps from this Rigol DS1054z and strung them together into a 60-second movie. He swears he didn’t purposely sync the video to the soundtrack, which is “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov, but in some places it’s just perfect. See if you can guess what DrTune has been working on by watching the waveforms fly by. And watch for Easter eggs.

Better Solvents Could Lead To Cleaner, Greener Perovskite Solar Cells

Regardless of appearances, almost all scientific progress comes at a price. That which is hailed as a breakthrough technology that will save the planet or improve the lots of those living upon it almost always comes at a cost, which sometimes greatly outweighs the purported benefits of the advancement.

Luckily, though, solving these kinds of problems is what scientists and engineers live for, and in the case of the potentially breakthrough technology behind perovskite solar cells (PSCs), that diligence has resulted in a cleaner and safer way to manufacture them. We’ve covered the technology of perovskites in the past, but briefly, as related to photovoltaic cells, they’re synthetic crystals of organometallic cations bonded to a halide anion, so something like methylammonium lead tribromide. These materials have a large direct bandgap, which means a thin layer of the stuff can absorb as much solar energy as a much thicker layer of monocrystalline silicon — hence the intense interest in perovskites for cheap, easily manufactured solar cells.

The problem with scaling up PSC manufacturing has been the need for volatile and dangerous solvents to dissolve the perovskites. One such solvent, dimethylformamide (DMF), commonly used in pharmaceutical manufacturing and often a component of paint strippers, is easily absorbed through the skin and toxic to the liver in relatively low concentrations. Another common solvent, γ-butyrolactone (GBL), is a precursor to γ-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), a common recreational club-drug known as “liquid ecstasy”.

In a recent paper, [Carys Wrosley] and colleagues at Swansea University showed that γ-valerolactone (GVL), a far less toxic and volatile solvent, could be effectively substituted for DMF and GBL in perovskite manufacturing processes. One of the most promising features of perovskites for solar cells is that the solution can be easily applied to transparent conductive substrates; the use of GVL as a solvent resulted in solar cells that were comparably efficient to cells made with the more dangerous solvents.

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Spinach Photo Prints

Some people like spinach in their salads. Others would prefer it if it never gets near their fork. Still, other folks, like [Almudena Romero], use it for printing pictures, and they’re the folks we’ll focus on today.

Anthotypes are positive images made from plant dyes that fade from light exposure. Imagine you stain your shirt at a picnic and leave it in the sun with a fork covering part of the stain. When you come back, the stain not sheltered by cutlery is gone, but now you have a permanent fork shape logo made from aunt Bev’s BBQ sauce. The science behind this type of printmaking is beautifully covered in the video below the break. You see, some plant dyes are not suitable for light bleaching, and fewer still if you are not patient since stains like blueberry can take a month in the sun.

The video shows how to make your own plant dye, which has possibilities outside of anthotype printing. Since the dye fades in sunlight, it can be a temporary paint, or you could use samples all over your garden to find which parts get lots of sunlight since the most exposed swatches will be faded the most. Think of a low-tech UV meter with logging, but it runs on spinach.

If the science doesn’t intrigue you, the artistic possibilities are equally cool. All the pictures have a one-of-a-kind, wabi-sabi flare. You take your favorite photo, make it monochrome, print it on a transparent plastic sheet, and the ink will shield the dye and expose the rest. We just gave you a tip about finding the sunniest spot outdoors, so get staining.

Anthotype printing shares some similarities with etch-resist in circuit board printing processes, but maybe someone can remix spinach prints with laser exposure!

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AI Patent Trolls Now On The Job For Drug Companies

Love it or loathe it, the pharmaceutical industry is really good at protecting its intellectual property. Drug companies pour billions into discovering new drugs and bringing them to market, and they do whatever it takes to make sure they have exclusive positions to profit from their innovations for as long a possible. Patent applications are meticulously crafted to keep the competition at bay for as long as possible, which is why it often takes ages for cheaper generic versions of blockbuster medications to hit the market, to the chagrin of patients, insurers, and policymakers alike.

Drug companies now appear poised to benefit from the artificial intelligence revolution to solidify their patent positions even further. New computational methods are being employed to not only plan the synthesis of new drugs, but to also find alternative pathways to the same end product that might present a patent loophole. AI just might change the face of drug development in the near future, and not necessarily for the better.

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Decellularization: Apples To Earlobes

Our bodies are not like LEGO blocks or computers because we cannot swap out our parts in the living room while watching television. Organ transplants and cosmetic surgery are currently our options for upgrades, repairs, and augments, but post-transplant therapy can be a lifelong commitment because of rejection. Elective surgery costs more than a NIB Millenium Falcon LEGO set. Laboratories have been improving the processes and associated treatments for decades but experimental labs and even home laboratories are getting in on the action as some creative minds take the stage. These folks aren’t performing surgeries, but they are expanding what is possible to for people to do and learn without a medical license.

One promising gateway to human building blocks is the decellularization and recellularization of organic material. Commercial scaffolds exist but they are expensive, so the average tinkerer isn’t going to be buying a few to play with over a holiday weekend.

Let’s explore what all this means. When something is decellularized, it means that the cells are removed, but the structure holding the cells in place remains. Recellularizing is the process where new cells are grown in that area. Decellularizing is like stripping a Hilton hotel down to the girders. The remaining structures are the ECM or the Extra Cellular Matrix, usually referred to as scaffolding. The structure has a shape but no functionality, like a stripped hotel. The scaffolding can be repopulated with new cells in the same way that our gutted hotel can be rebuilt as a factory, office building, or a hospital.

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Engine Hacks – A DIY Methane Generator

All “methane generator” jokes aside, This one actually serves a useful purpose. Although not an engine hack per se, methane can be used to run an engine. As the traditional method of powering an internal combustion engine, gasoline, gets more and more expensive, alternatives will have to be found. If you happen to live on a farm, or have access to a source of organic waste, this method could serve as a viable one.

One would need quite a bit of waste, as each kilogram yields around 400 liters of methane gas. This amount is enough to run a gas light for around 4 hours. Any sort of useful engine would require quite a bit more than this (chicken farm possibly?).

A process for converting waste to fuel is illustrated in the video after the break. Extreme caution should be used if attempting to do something like this. There is a danger of not only flammable gas leaking and catching on fire or exploding, but the organic material can be quite toxic as well. Continue reading “Engine Hacks – A DIY Methane Generator”