Mars Mystery Solved: NASA Says Strange Object Was A Rock, Not A Jelly Doughnut

By Ben Wolford on February 15, 2014 3:50 PM EST

The mystery of the weird Martian object is solved. It was just a rock. (Photo: NASA)
The mystery of the weird Martian object is solved. It was just a rock, as this new picture of the scene revealed this week. (Photo: NASA)

Well, this was anticlimactic. The creepy Martian object, nicknamed Pinnacle Island, that appeared out of nowhere — and that some people said resembled a jelly doughnut — is actually just a rock. It was not placed there by Martians. It did not fall to Mars from space. Instead, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity ran over a rock and cracked it in half, revealing its bright-red innards, the space agency announced Friday.

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"Once we moved Opportunity a short distance, after inspecting Pinnacle Island, we could see directly uphill an overturned rock that has the same unusual appearance," said Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, in a statement. He's the deputy principal investigator for Opportunity and said bluntly, "We drove over it. We can see the track. That's where Pinnacle Island came from."

Last month, NASA scientists compared two pictures of the same spot taken by the rover 12 days apart. Something was different in the Jan. 8 picture. From seemingly out of nowhere, an odd-looking object appeared in the frame. "It's about the size of a jelly doughnut," Opportunity Lead Scientist Steve Squyres said at the time. "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."

Now you don't see it; now you do. These are the before-and-after pictures NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity snapped 12 days apart in the same spot. The mysterious appearance of a new object sparked wide speculation. (Photo: NASA)
Now you don't see it; now you do. These are the before-and-after pictures NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity snapped 12 days apart in the same spot. The mysterious appearance of a new object sparked wide speculation. (Photo: NASA)

The speculation heated up to the point that an astrobiologist named Rhawn Joseph, who runs the "theoretical science" website Cosmology.com, asked a judge to order NASA to investigate the object further, The Los Angeles Times reported. Joseph speculated that the thing could be a fungus or some other type of living organism. NASA even responded to the demand, saying basically, "We're looking into it."

Well, they've looked into it. The rock, as it turns out to be, contains manganese and sulfur — two elements that are water soluble. Water, of course, is the compound NASA wants to find. Not only is it important for humans attempting future manned missions to Mars, it is also thought to accompany any extra-terrestrial life. The rock could've formed by water deposits. "This may have happened just beneath the surface relatively recently," Arvidson said, "or it may have happened deeper below ground longer ago and then, by serendipity, erosion stripped away material above it and made it accessible to our wheels."

As the rover turns uphill to go inspect a rock-studded ridge in the distance, most people are moving on, content that the mystery was solved. Not Joseph. "Now, without taking a single close-up photo, NASA/JPL have proclaimed it 'may' be a rock after all. ... Presumably, next week it will be a ham sandwich on rye." Some people still think the "Mars Rat" is real, too.

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