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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An Open Source Detector For Identifying Plastics

One of the challenges involved in recycling plastic is determining the specific type of plastic a given item is actually made of. To keep up with demand, large scale recycling centers rely on various automated systems to separate different types of plastic from a stream of incoming material. But in less technologically advanced parts of the world, workers can find themselves having to manually identify plastic objects; a time consuming and error-prone process.

To try and improve on the situation, [Jerry de Vos], [Armin Straller], and [Jure Vidmar] have been working on a handheld open hardware device that they refer to simply enough as the Plastic Scanner. The hope is that their pocket-sized unit could be used in the field to positively identify various types of plastic by measuring its reflectivity to infrared light. The device promises to be very easy to operate, as users simply need to bring the device close to a piece of plastic, push the button, and wait for the information to pop up on the OLED display.

Or at least, that’s the idea. While the team eventually hopes to release a kit to build your own handheld Plastic Scanner, it seems that the hardware isn’t quite ready for production. The most recent work appears to have been put in, not unexpectedly, the development board that lets the team refine their process. The development unit combines an array of IR LEDs with wavelengths ranging from 850 to 1650 nanometers, a InGaAs photodiode connected to an ADS1256 24-bit analog-to-digital converter (ADC), and an Arduino Uno. In comparison, the final hardware uses a Raspberry Pi Zero and a smaller “breakout board” that contains the sensor and IR LEDs.

Browsing through the software repository for the project, we can see the device uses Python, TensorFlow Lite, and a database of IR reflectivity values for known plastics to try and determine the closest match. Obviously the accuracy of such a system is going to be highly dependent on the quantity of known-good data, but at least for now, it appears the user is responsible for building up their own collection or IR values.

As interesting as this project is, we’re a bit skeptical about its purely optical approach to identifying plastics. Automated recycling centers do use infrared spectroscopy, but it’s only one tool of many that are employed. Without additional data points, such as the density or electrostatic properties of the plastic being tested, it seems like the Plastic Scanner would have a fairly high margin of error. Just taking into account the wide array of textures and colors the user is likely to encounter while using the device will be a considerable challenge.

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Open Source Raman Spectrometer Is Cheaper, But Not Cheap

Raman spectrography uses the Raman scattering of photons from a laser or other coherent light beam to measure the vibrational state of molecules. In chemistry, this is useful for identifying molecules and studying chemical bonds. Don’t have a Raman spectroscope? Cheer up! Open Raman will give you the means to build one.

The “starter edition” replaces the initial breadboard version which used Lego construction, although the plans for that are still on the site, as well. [Luc] is planning a performance edition, soon, that will have better performance and, presumably, a greater cost.

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A 3D Printable Raman Probe

Scientific instruments are expensive. In a lot of cases, really expensive, so if you have spent any time in a well-equipped lab, the chances are that it would have been one backed up by the resources of a university, or a large company. Those experimenters who wish to pursue such matters outside those environments have traditionally had to rely on obsolete instruments from the surplus market. A fascinating endeavor in itself, but one that can sometimes limit the opportunity to pursue science.

It has been interesting then to see the impact of the arrival of affordable 3D printing on the creation of self-built scientific instruments. A fantastic example has come our way, [David H Haffner Sr]’s 3D printable Raman probe. A Raman spectroscope is an instrument in which the light scattered from the sample exposed to an incident monochromatic source is collected, as opposed to that reflected or transmitted through it. Scattered light can be a huge magnitude weaker than other modes, thus the design of a Raman probe is critical to its success. (If you are curious, read this multi-part explanation on Raman spectroscopy.)

This is a work in progress at the time of writing, but it still makes for an interesting examination of Raman probe design. Interestingly the sensor is a standard DSLR camera, which though not a cheap device is possibly more affordable than a more dedicated sensor.

This isn’t the first Raman spectrometer we’ve seen on these pages, we’ve also brought you a Fourier transform spectrometer, and plenty of more conventional instruments.

SCiO “Pocket Molecular Scanner” Teardown

Some of you may remember the SCiO, originally a Kickstarter darling back in 2014 that promised people a pocket-sized micro spectrometer. It was claimed to be able to scan and determine the composition of everything from fruits and produce to your own body. The road from successful crowdsourcing to production was uncertain and never free from skepticism regarding the promised capabilities, but the folks at [Sparkfun] obtained a unit and promptly decided to tear it down to see what was inside, and share what they found.

The main feature inside the SCiO is the optical sensor, which consists of a custom-made NIR spectrometer. By analyzing the different wavelengths that reflect off an object, the unit can make judgments about what the object is made of. The SCiO was clearly never built to be disassembled, but [Sparkfun] pulls everything apart and provides some interesting photos of a custom-made optical unit with an array of different sensors, various filters, apertures, and a microlens array.

It’s pretty interesting to see inside the SCiO’s hardware, which unfortunately required destructive disassembly of the unit in question. The basic concept of portable spectroscopy is solid, as shown by projects such as the Farmcorder which is intended to measure plant health, and the DIY USB spectrometer which uses a webcam as the sensor.

Arduino Does Hard Science

We don’t know why [stoppi71] needs to do gamma spectroscopy. We only know that he has made one, including a high-voltage power supply, a photomultiplier tube, and–what else–an Arduino. You also need a scintillation crystal to convert the gamma rays to visible light for the tube to pick up.

He started out using an open source multichannel analyzer (MCA) called Theremino. This connects through a sound card and runs on a PC. However, he wanted to roll his own and did so with some simple circuitry and an Arduino.

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MIT Researchers Can Read Closed Books (and Defeat CAPTCHA)

Ten years ago, MIT researchers proved that it was possible to look through an envelope and read the text inside using terahertz spectroscopic imaging. This research inspired [Barmak Heshmat] to try the same technique to read a book through its cover. A new crop of MIT researchers led by [Heshmat] have developed a prototype to do exactly that, and he explains the process in the video after the break. At present, the system is capable of correctly deciphering individual letters through nine pages of printed text.

They do this by firing terahertz waves in short bursts at a stack of pages and interpreting the return values and travel time. The microscopic air pockets between the pages provide boundaries for differentiation. [Heshmat] and the team rely on these pockets to reflect the signal back to a sensor in the camera. Once they have the system dialed in to be able to see the letters on the target page and distinguish them from the shadows of the letters on the other pages, they use an algorithm to determine the letters. [Heshmat] says the algorithm is so good that it can get through most CAPTCHAs.

The most immediate application for this technology is reading antique books and other printed materials that are far too fragile to be handled, potentially opening up worlds of knowledge that are hidden within disintegrating documents. For a better look at the outsides of things, there is Reflectance Transformation Imaging.

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