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The Rock that Appeared Out of Nowhere on Mars

Screenshot from Steve Squyres presentation celebrating 10 years of the Mars Exploration Rovers. A rock suddenly appeared where there was none 12 sols earlier.

Screenshot from Steve Squyres presentation celebrating 10 years of the Mars Exploration Rovers. A rock suddenly appeared where there was none 12 sols earlier.

During last night’s celebration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of ten years of the Mars Exploration Rovers, mission principal investigator Steve Squyres shared several stories about the exploration and discoveries made by the rovers Spirit and Opportunity since they landed on Mars in 2004. An intriguing recent mystery is a strange rock that suddenly appeared in photos from the Opportunity rover in a spot where photos taken just 12 sols earlier showed no rock.

“One of the things I like to say is that Mars keeps throwing new things at us,” Squyres deadpanned.

A colorized version of the rock called Pinnacle Island. Credit: NASA/JPL, color by Stuart Atkinson.

A colorized version of the rock called Pinnacle Island. Credit: NASA/JPL, color by Stuart Atkinson.

Squyres described the rock as “white around the outside, in the middle there’s low spot that is dark red. It looks like a jelly donut,” he said. “And it appeared. It just plain appeared and we haven’t driven over that spot.”

They’ve named it “Pinnacle Island,” and the team is contemplating a few ideas of why the rock mysteriously showed up.

“One theory is that we somehow flicked it with a wheel,” Squyres said. “We had driven a meter or two away from here and somehow maybe one of the wheels managed spit it out of the ground. That’s the more likely theory.”

The other?

“The other theory is that there might be a smoking hole in the ground nearby and this may be crater ejecta. But that one is less likely,” Squyres said.

Another idea suggested by others is that it may have tumbled down from a nearby rock outcrop.

Image from Sol 3528 of the area showing no rock. Click to see original on the rover's raw image website. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Image from Sol 3528 of the area showing no rock. Click to see original on the rover’s raw image website. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Image of same area on Sol 3540 where the 'jelly donut' rock appears. Click to see original. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Image of same area on Sol 3540 where the ‘jelly donut’ rock appears. Click to see original. Credit: NASA/JPL.

But as intriguing as the sudden appearance of the rock is what the team is finding out about it.

“We are as we speak situated with the rover, with its instruments, making measurements on this rock. We’ve taken pictures of both the donut part and the jelly part,” Squyres said. “The jelly part is like nothing we’ve seen before on Mars. It’s very high in sulfur and magnesium and it has twice as much manganese as anything we’ve seen before. I don’t know what any of this means. We’re completely confused, everybody on the team is arguing and fighting. We’re having a wonderful time!”

But that’s the beauty of this mission, Squyres said.

“I used to have this comforting notion that at some point, we could sit back and say ‘we did it, we’re finished, we’ve learned everything we could about this location.’ But Mars is not like that. It keeps throwing new things at us.”

“And what I’ve come to realize,” Squyres concluded, ” – and it was true when we lost Spirit and it will be true when we lose Opportunity — there will always be something tantalizing just beyond our reach that we just won’t get to. That’s just the nature of exploration, and I feel so very fortunate to have been part of this mission.”

You can watch the entire replay of the celebration below, and read a great look back at the past 10 years from Stuart Atkinson’s Road to Endeavour blog.

Video streaming by Ustream


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • InTheory January 20, 2014, 1:00 AM

    A problem with looking at these pictures is that there’s no sense of scale. It could be 1 to 10 cm across but without some frame of reference there’s no way to tell. At least not for us.

    Considering the rover is the most mobile object in the area, a rock being kicked up by a wheel is the most likely explanation. Second may be a rock got picked up by a dust devil and fell there.

  • Steve Roussos January 20, 2014, 2:18 PM
    • Hans K Hildebrand January 27, 2014, 1:39 AM


  • william patching January 21, 2014, 12:39 AM

    if that’s only one centimeter big that’s an assed out Bowl of martian Green bud

  • Light_Horizon January 21, 2014, 1:48 PM

    There are ways the rock could have appeared. Wind, rover movement, etc. What’s exciting to me is that they have never seen a rock like this on Mars.

  • Mac Ten January 22, 2014, 1:28 PM

    Google the 3 minerals and you will find they are all plant food that shows up in higher concentrations during decay. Is it not strange that the outline of this “rock” is there in the previous picture?

  • Aqua4U January 22, 2014, 2:41 PM

    I’m still thinking geode… Couldn’t a microbial biology use elements in their metabolism that later, through reduction, get concentrated and lead to the development of crystalline structures? Could it actually be a ‘fossil’?


    • Aqua4U January 22, 2014, 2:53 PM

      Explosive event moving rocks? Maybe it was caused by a lightning bolt? That’d move yer rocks!

      Curiosity changes the local E/M gradient?

    • travelstickcouk . January 22, 2014, 4:12 PM

      Interesting alternative.

  • Metria Jones January 22, 2014, 4:48 PM

    Does anybody notice there is an imprint for the object before the object was there?

  • sarah_jax January 22, 2014, 5:15 PM

    Since there is almost an exact impression on the ground in the “before” picture (look close the diamond donut shape is in the before picture as an impression) has anyone considered that this thing might have grew from the ground??? Ok.. It is Mars and all but the facts are the facts.. Usually when a rock hits the sand, it will leave an impression in the sand after the rock hits it. In this case, from what I can see, there is almost an exact impression in the ground in the “before” picture. Anyone else see that or am I hallucinating here?

    • sarah_jax January 22, 2014, 5:25 PM

      P.S. I know it is hard to tell the size because the pictures were taken at two different angles. However, there is like a mini mountain range line to the right of the object in picture 2. It starts a few feet above the “donut” shaped item, comes down to the right of the item, and then takes a 5 degree turn to the left and goes down.

      If you now look at the first picture, and follow this mini mountain range down and turn left, you will see that the “rock” in picture 2 is exactly where the impression is in picture 1. I say one of two things happened:

      The first picture taken is actually the donut rock picture 2 or this thing grew from the ground and it is the first sign of life on Mars.

    • Hug Doug January 23, 2014, 10:45 AM

      the rock is in a different place. http://lbc9.com/mars.gif

  • Charles Lyell January 22, 2014, 5:44 PM

    It looks like suphur, if yellow, very common in volcanic areas.

  • tincancattle January 23, 2014, 12:57 AM

    That’s no Jelly Donut. It’s a Space Station…..

  • Jose Luis January 23, 2014, 5:08 AM

    A beautiful flower -a Martian flower. The planet may be flourshing for us…

  • Graham January 23, 2014, 5:11 AM

    This object is clearly the exact shape of the previous depression in the rock it sits upon before it appeared, I have no doubt it bloomed from the rock. Either a metallic based oxidation or crystal growth of some type, or a life form that is new to us.

  • Graham January 23, 2014, 5:17 AM

    Just move it with the rover and take a better look at it, run over it and see if it screams or fights back :)

  • swankles January 23, 2014, 5:41 AM

    mmmm jelly

  • travelstickcouk . January 23, 2014, 9:05 AM

    What if NASA mis-numbered the images, in 3528 you see that the soil is disturbed? What would be the change that a rock rolls to that spot?

  • DiogenesRedux January 24, 2014, 1:38 PM

    Podkayne was just messing with you. or, or, this is proof of life…with za sense of humor. Kind of like what the natives did when explorers first arrived and they put out items and watched to see what the “invader” did with them.

  • InTheory January 24, 2014, 3:14 PM

    People seem to be forgetting that Mars has weather. Barring the very likely event that the rock was kicked up by a wheel, winds and dust devils are also commonplace. Dust devils can be many kilometers high on Mars and can easily toss pebbles around.

  • Hug Doug January 26, 2014, 4:16 PM

    check out this gif: http://lbc9.com/mars.gif

  • Dusty Gazongas January 26, 2014, 7:24 PM

    Looks like a deflated metallic parachute/balloon from one of the landings…

  • AwE130 January 30, 2014, 2:05 PM

    The day the image was released a small website originally Dutch based, did release a article that it could be an fungus and not a rock. On the 27 January a Ph.D. scientist has started a lawsuit against NASA. This is the break we are waiting for, I think that NASA insiders did release this information in the hope the people would pick it up and started to ask questions.