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How A St. Louis Startup Is Helping NASA’s Rover Find Life On Mars

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Sam Owens
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Impossible Sensing co-founder Pablo Sobron, right, at work with electrical engineer Owen Pochettino.

This afternoon, the NASA rover Perseverance touched down on Mars after a seven-month journey. And no one was monitoring the landing more carefully than a small handful of scientists working out of a church basement in south St. Louis.

The scientists are part of a 5-year-old startup, Impossible Sensing. Its current mission is to decipher and interpret the data gathered by Perseverance’s sensors.

But Impossible Sensing was founded with a much bigger goal: to build better sensors for future missions. Its latest prototype is called “Merlin,” and the company boasts it can give organizations like NASA “the capability to see what they couldn’t see before, both here on Earth and in landscapes of other worlds.”

The company’s founder, Pablo Sobron, previously worked as a research scientist for NASA. But he felt a sense of urgency he believed could only be fulfilled by setting off on his own: “I found I do more, and do it faster, flying solo.”

In St. Louis, Sobron believes he’s found the perfect place to do it. Impossible Sensing is headquartered in the Nebula co-working space on Cherokee Street, with its lab now taking up the basement of a long-vacated church nearby (also now part of the Nebula family).

Sobron explained on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air that his team at Impossible Sensing will be examining video footage transmitted by the rover as it comes in, with only a seven-minute delay to account for the transmission across a quarter-billion miles.

“This mission is expected to find key locations on Mars where we think life may have happened in the past,” he said. “The sensors we are working with are specifically designed to look for what we call the biosignatures — properties of the minerals that have clues as to whether there was life there in the past.”

And Sobron doesn’t discount the idea of life on the Red Planet right now: “The more we learn about Mars on these missions, the more we learn that ecosystems underneath may be possible.” A few kilometers before the harsh surface of the planet, he said, bacteria may have found more habitable conditions. The rover has the tools to drill down to that environment.

To work on Mars, sensors must be capable of working under extreme conditions. “Think about sitting on a tower of an explosive bomb,” Sobron said, referring to the rocket launch that blasts the rover into space. “The vibrations and the shock of the launch and the trip and the landing, that can unscrew any bolts you put in there.” Then, if they survive the landing, the sensors have to be capable of working in temperatures as low as -100 degrees Celsius. “It is very, very different than working in the lab,” he said.

And the technologies Impossible Sensing is developing have utility on Earth as well. The company’s sensors are already at work in the deep sea, Sobron said. “We know more about the moon than the sea floor,” he noted. Companies in the oil and gas industry and the federal government are two clients.

A native of Spain who initially came to the Midwest to do research at Washington University, Sobron briefly moved to the Bay Area before becoming convinced St. Louis is a better incubator for ambitious startups.

“St. Louis is one of these places where, if you spend enough time here, you encounter crazy people, you encounter crazy ideas, and crazy places to make that happen,” he said. “The more I was in the city, the more I realized places like T-Rex downtown, and now Nebula, where we are hosted in south city, enable companies like us with big ideas, big plans, big vision, to actually go and execute them.

“It’s about the ability to take high risks here in St. Louis without the penalty that you get in other places of the country. This was the perfect launchpad, pun intended, for Impossible Sensing.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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