An unexpected leak of a chemical designed to tag complex organic molecules in samples collected by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity appears to have serendipitously done its job, scientists reported on Tuesday.
Curiosity's onboard laboratory includes seven so-called "wet chemistry" experiments designed to preserve and identify suspect carbon-containing components in samples drilled out from rocks.
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None of the foil-capped metal cups has been punctured yet, but vapors of the fluid, known as N-methyl-N-tert-butyldimethylsilyl-trifluoroacetamide, or MTBSTFA, leaked into the gas-sniffing analysis instrument early in the mission.
Curiosity landed in a 96-mile wide impact basin known as Gale Crater in August 2012 to determine if the planet most like Earth in the solar system has or ever had the chemistry and environments to support microbial life.
Scientists quickly fulfilled the primary goal of the mission, discovering sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon in powder Curiosity drilled out of an ancient mudstone in an area known as Yellowknife Bay.
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That paved the way for a more ambitious hunt for complex organic molecules, an effort complicated by the MTBSTFA leak.
"This caused us a lot of headache in the beginning, frankly, because it has a lot of carbon in it and other (chemical) fragments that can break apart," Curiosity scientist Danny Glavin, with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said on Tuesday (March 17) at the Lunar and Planetary Science conference in Houston, Texas.
"We've turned this sort of bad thing into a good thing because we've learned how to work around this leak. We've actually used this vapor from this leak to carry out derivitization," he said, referring to the technique to tag organics.