Last week, NASA scientists revealed the discovery of a mysterious rock on Mars that seems to have suddenly appeared out of thin air. News of the errant “mystery rock”, which NASA said was “like nothing we’ve ever seen before”, were announced last week by NASA Mars Exploration Rover team members at an event in Caltech, California. Amongst talk of the usual day-to-day NASA discoveries on the Red Planet (e.g. gypsum deposits, new clays), NASA shared the Mars rover team’s excitement over the discovery of a mysterious rock that appeared, out of nowhere, in NASA photos.
During the event, NASA showed photos taken on sol 3528 of the Opportunity Rover mission, that captured a flat, bare bedrock. But a few days later, on sol 3540, a large rock appeared on the flattened solid surface area that scientists aptly named “Pinnacle Island”. How the rock suddenly appeared on top of the boulder has left scientists puzzled. NASA lead Steve Squyres of Cornell University told attendees:
“After a decade of exploring the Martian surface, the scientists overseeing veteran rover Opportunity thought they’d seen it all. That was until a rock mysteriously ‘appeared’ a few feet in front of the six-wheeled rover a few days ago.”
With obvious excitement, Squyres continued:
“Mars keeps throwing new stuff at us! It was a total surprise, we were like ‘wait a second, that wasn’t there before, it can’t be right. Oh my god! It wasn’t there before!’ We were absolutely startled.”
You can see the rock in the images above. The image on top shows the area in front of Opportunity on Sol 3528. The image above was taken 12 Martian days later and is identical—except for a rock the size of a donut that had suddenly appeared. NASA described the object:
“It looks white around the edge in the middle and there’s a low spot in the center that’s dark red – it looks like a jelly doughnut.”
Mission scientists have come up with just two explanations (which they stressed were merely “guesses”) for the sudden appearance of the mysterious rock. One NASA scientist proposed the mystery rock was debris from a nearby meteorite impact event (the “impacta ejecta theory”) however, no such events were recorded by Opportunity Rover instruments which makes the theory quite improbable. Another scientist guessed that the rock could have been thrown from the Rover’s wheels as it turned, landing inconspicuously on the surface of the flat bedrock. Other researchers discounted the “tossed rock” theory, pointing out that the Opportunity rover has not moved in over a month as it awaits better weather.
“And it appeared, just plain appeared at that spot – and we haven’t ever driven over that spot.”
“It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. It’s very high in sulphur, it’s very high in magnesium, it’s got twice as much manganese as we’ve ever seen in anything on Mars. I don’t know what any of this means. We’re completely confused, and everyone in the team is arguing and fighting over what it means.”
Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 in what was to be a three-month mission. Instead the rover has lived beyond its prime mission and roved the planet for nearly 10 years. The rover is currently at ‘Solander Point’ at the rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars. The rover hasn’t moved in over a month as it waits for better weather on the red planet.
Researchers say they plan to study the rock further to determine where it came from.