About that ‘mystery rock’ on Mars: no it’s not a plant, but…

Microscopic Imager (MI) closeup view of Pinnacle Island showing the whitish colouring around the edges and the darker appearing "jelly" interior. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Microscopic Imager (MI) closeup view of Pinnacle Island showing the whitish colouring around the edges and the darker appearing “jelly” interior. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

There has been a lot of discussion the past few days about that lawsuit filed against NASA for supposedly covering up / failing to investigate evidence of life on Mars by the Opportunity rover. This all has to do of course with that “mystery rock” found by Opportunity, nicknamed Pinnacle Island, which somehow just appeared near the rover (most likely dislodged and kicked up by one of the wheels) a few weeks ago.

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Curiosity plays in a Martian sand dune

Close-up view of the edge of a Curiosity wheel track in the sand dune at Dingo Gap. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Close-up view of the edge of a Curiosity wheel track in the sand dune at Dingo Gap. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Curiosity has also been taking a lot of close-up images of the sand dune which the rover has “toe-dipped” into. The rover’s wheels have left very distinct impressions in the very fine-grained sand within the dune, while the outside of the dune has a denser “crust” covered with many small rounded grains, similar to other dunes seen by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Whether or not Curiosity will actually drive through the dune (if deemed safe) to the other side of Dingo Gap or just go around hasn’t been decided yet, but in the meantime there are lots of new images to enjoy.

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Dingo Gap: new panorama and a rockhound’s bonanza

Mastcam panorama of Dingo Gap. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Damia Bouic
Mastcam panorama of Dingo Gap from sol 528. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Damia Bouic

Dingo Gap has turned out to be quite an interesting place for the Curiosity rover, being both scenic and of great geological interest. Rocks of all sizes and shapes litter the landscape amid the cliffs and sand dunes and Curiosity is continuing to study this area before driving further south toward Mount Sharp. Another new panorama by Damia Bouic shows the scenery in stunning high resolution and there is also a great overview by Emily Lakdawalla on The Planetary Society blog.

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New images: Dingo Gap and the ‘Firepit’

View of Dingo Gap on sol 527. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
View of Dingo Gap on sol 527. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Curiosity is now doing a complete examination of Dingo Gap, and sending back some beautiful new photos. The rover team hasn’t decided yet whether to try to cross though the largest sand dune which spreads across the middle of the Gap, and is about 1 metre (3 feet) tall. The dunes, cliffs and many different broken and jumbled rocks here make this a very scenic location. Of particular interest also is the “rock ring” beside the largest dune, and also now nicknamed by some as the “firepit” (thanks to Bill Dunford of the Riding with Robots blog for that!).

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Curiosity arrives at Dingo Gap

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View of Dingo Gap on sol 527. The interesting “rock ring” is just a short ways straight ahead. Click for larger view. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Curiosity is now at Dingo Gap, and the new images show the sand dunes and rocks in great detail. That includes the interesting “rock ring” mentioned earlier, just in front of the largest sand dune. Curiosity will drive right up to the sand dune (and presumably “rock ring”) in the next day or so, so even better images should be available soon!

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Curiosity closing in on Dingo Gap

Panoramic image of Dingo Gap, with some of the hills of the Gale crater rim in the background. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Olivier de Goursac
Panoramic image of Dingo Gap, with some of the hills of the Gale crater rim in the background. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Olivier de Goursac

The Curiosity rover is now getting a lot closer to Dingo Gap, that interesting opening between two rocky ledges just a short ways to the west. Small sand dunes and rocks cover the ground in DG. The image above is a beautiful panorama of DG by Olivier de Goursac assembled from several separate rover images. The image below was taken closer to DG, showing more detail in the rocks and dunes. There is also a curious little oval-shaped ring of rock just in front of the largest dune on the left side of the image; it looks similar to some of the other “bubble” formations seen previously. Is it the same or something different? We should be even closer in the next day or two to see more… See also updates here.

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Curiosity headed to ‘Dingo Gap’

Dingo Gap, a short ways to the west of Curiosity's current position. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Dingo Gap, a short ways to the west of Curiosity’s current position. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The Curiosity rover is going to take a slight detour to the west to cross through a gap between two rocky ledges, now nicknamed Dingo Gap (also “the chute”). The scenic feature was noticed a few days ago and there is a smooth-looking sand dune spanning the opening. Will be interesting to see up close! Then the journey southward to Mount Sharp continues…

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Cloudy days on Mars

Clouds above Moreux crater in the Protonilus Mensae region. Click for larger version. Credit: ESA / G. Neukum (Freie Universitaet, Berlin, Germany) / Bill Dunford
Clouds above Moreux crater in the Protonilus Mensae region. Ancient streambeds can also be seen. Click for larger version. Credit: ESA / G. Neukum (Freie Universitaet, Berlin, Germany) / Bill Dunford

Mars can seem amazingly Earth-like in many ways, and that includes weather. Bill Dunford recently posted some new images from the Mars Express spacecraft, providing some great views of Martian clouds as they drift over the landscape below. The one above is a beautiful example and all of them can be seen here. While Martian clouds don’t get as big and puffy as they can on Earth, they are still a reminder that Mars is a place, a world with its own unique history while at the same time reminding us of home.

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Interesting ‘ribbon rock’ seen by Curiosity rover

ChemCam image of "ribbon rock" taken on sol 514. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
ChemCam image of “ribbon rock” taken on sol 514. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While a lot of attention has been paid the last few days to the odd rock which “appeared” beside the Opportunity rover, the other rover, Curiosity, has found its own interesting little chunk of a Martian puzzle. While not as publicized, it has been the subject of a lot of discussion among mission followers. What are the ribbon-like bands? Could they be feldspar laths? Another type of lath? Something else entirely? Curiosity has taken Mastcam and ChemCam images, but no other information is available yet.

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What is this mystery rock that ‘appeared’ near the Opportunity rover on Mars?

The enigmatic Pinnacle Island rock. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stuart Atkinson
The enigmatic Pinnacle Island rock. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stuart Atkinson
The enigmatic Pinnacle Island rock. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stuart Atkinson

There is another little Martian mystery that has people talking this week – the odd appearance a few days ago of a small rock a few feet away from the Opportunity rover, it was announced yesterday during the Opportunity: 10 Years on Mars event at NASA.

The rock, nicknamed Pinnacle Island, wasn’t in images taken on sol 3528, but was in images taken of the same spot later on sol 3540. How did it get there and where did it come from?

Comparison image showing the before and after photos of the mystery rock "Pinnacle Island." The after image is the same patch of ground as in the inset box in the before image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Jason Major
Comparison image showing the before and after photos of the mystery rock “Pinnacle Island.” The after image is the same patch of ground as in the inset box in the before image. Click for larger view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Jason Major

As principal investigator for the mission, Steve Squyres, explained, the rock is whitish in colour, about the size of a doughnut with a darker spot (“jelly”) in the middle area, which has a concave or hollowed-out appearance. The finding sparked questions and theories ranging from a nugget either left there by a nearby meteor impact or deposited somehow by the rover’s wheels. Squyres thinks the wheel idea is much more likely than the random chance of a meteor happening to hit that close to the rover’s location. Are there any other possibilities?

Microscopic Imager (MI) closeup view of Pinnacle Island showing the whitish colouring around the edges and the darker appearing "jelly" interior.
Microscopic Imager (MI) closeup view of Pinnacle Island showing the whitish colouring around the edges and the darker appearing “jelly” interior. Click for larger view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Microscopic Imager (MI) photos have also been taken of the object and analysis so far of the darker “jelly” has shown it to be rich in sulfur, magnesium and manganese (with twice as much manganese as any other rock examined before by the rover). It is thought that the rock has been flipped over, exposing its underside.

A fascinating mystery that is sure to keep the mission scientists busy for a while.

Thanks also to Jason Major and Stuart Atkinson for use of their complementary images.

This article was first published on Examiner.com.

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