Opportunity Rover Finds Mysterious Mars Rock: Where Did It Come From?
NASA's Mars rovers have photographed some strange objects in recent years (remember Mars Rat?), and now the Opportunity rover has uncovered one more: a rock that has mysteriously appeared seemingly out of nowhere. NASA scientists made the discovery while comparing two photographs Opportunity took of the same spot 12 Martian days apart. Seeing the rock "was a total surprise," said Steve Squyres, the NASA Mars Exploration Rover lead scientist, during an event last night celebrating ten years of Mars exploration by rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
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"It's about the size of a jelly doughnut," said Squyres. "[W]e 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."
So where did the mysterious Mars rock come from? There hasn't been a formal study performed yet, but there are two preliminary theories. The more interesting theory is that the rock--which NASA has taken to calling "Pinnacle Island"--landed there following a meteorite impact in the area. The second, more likely theory is that Opportunity kicked the rock in front of its cameras while maneuvering around.
"[M]y best guess for this rock...is that it's something that was nearby," Squyres told Discovery News. "I must stress that I'm guessing now, but I think it happened when the rover did a turn in place a meter or two from where this rock now lies."
Supporting Squyres's theory is the fact that the front right steering actuator on Opportunity is no longer functioning. The failing of the actuator means the wheel can't turn left or right, so Squyres thinks the wheel may have sputtered around in place, sort of like a wheel in snow, "tiddlywinking" the rock into view while flipping it over.
Things don't tend to move around much on Mars, so something as pedestrian-sounding as a flipped-over rock holds some interest. The rock has presumably been face-down for years, meaning that "we're seeing a side that hasn't seen the Martian atmosphere in billions of years and there it is for us to investigate," said Squyres. "It's just a stroke of luck."
The Opportunity rover launched in July 2003 and landed on Mars in January 2004. The rover's planned mission was only 90 Martian days, or sols (92.5 Earth days), but it still continues to function and gather data almost ten years past its original mission end date--nearly 40 times its planned lifespan. The Spirit rover, which landed on Mars around the same time as Opportunity, got stuck in a patch of soft soil in 2009 and became inactive in March 2010.
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