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What Does Espresso Have to do with a Mars Mission?

Narrator: This is Science Today. It took an apple falling from a tree to spur Sir Issac Newton to discover the first law of motion and it took a cup of espresso to give scientists at the University of California, San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography the key concept behind an instrument that will fly to Mars in 2013 to search for signs of life in the form of amino acids in Martian soil.

Bada: You need to get the amino acids out of the dirt to analyze it because the instruments use solutions of amino acids, so we have to extract the amino acids.

Narrator: This often requires a very strong acid that can't be used on a spacecraft, so marine chemist Jeffrey Bada describes how they literally came up with a solution during a coffee break.

Bada: All of a sudden, somebody was brewing espresso coffee and we sort of went, wait a minute - this would work with dirt. And we just put dirt and just heated it on a hotplate and let it do its thing like it was making coffee and we ended up with a solution and it had extracted the amino acids.

Narrator: For Science Today, I'm Larissa Branin.