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Shiny Object on Mars Update: Likely ‘Benign’ Plastic

Curiosity sol 62 ChemCam image detail. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Image processing courtesy 2di7 & titanio44 on Flickr.

Lost earring? Cigarette butt? Those were just a couple of ideas tossed around loosely by the public about what this unusual object could be, found laying near the Mars Curiosity rover. The rover team is still looking closely at the shiny object, seen in images of the sandy regolith near the rover, and they issued a report today saying their initial assessment is that the bright object is something from the rover, and not Martian material. It appears to be a shred of plastic material, “likely benign,” they said, but it has not been definitively identified.

A loose piece of plastic or insulating tape may have jarred free during the rover’s shaking of the sample of Martian regolith it recently scooped up.

The team will proceed cautiously and will spend another day investigating new images before deciding whether to resume processing of the sample in the scoop. Plans include imaging of surroundings with the Mastcam, and perhaps looking at the rover itself, too, for any chips or loose parts.

One of the rover drivers, Scott Maxwell said on Twitter that the entire team was working hard to figure that out what could have possibly come loose from the rover and they are “crawling over rover model, tracking down testing records, etc. We simply don’t know yet.”

A sample of sand and dust scooped up on Sol 61 remains in the scoop, and plan to transfer it from the scoop into other chambers of the sample-processing device were postponed as a precaution during planning for Sol 62 after the small, bright object was detected.

Curiosity sol 62 ChemCam view of the bright object on the ground. Image: NASA/JPL -Caltech. Anaglyph processing courtesy 2di7 & titanio44 on Flickr.

The shaking being done by the rover is to clean it of any residual oils that may be left inside, which could skew any results from the two onboard chemical labs, known as Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), and the Chemical and Mineralogy experiment (CheMin.)

Daniel Limonadi, the Lead Systems Engineer for Curiosity’s Surface Sampling and science systems told reporters last week that the cleansing was required even though the hardware is “super-squeaky-clean when it’s delivered and assembled. By virtue of its just being on Earth, you get a kind of residual oily film that is impossible to avoid,” he said.

Once the soil has been shaken and stirred through the chambers, it’ll be ejected from the mechanism and ‘poop’ it back onto the Martian surface. “We effectively use it to rinse out our mouth three times and then kind of spit out,” Limonadi said.

The images here were sent in by Universe Today reader Elisabetta Bonora who zoomed in and created 3-D views of the images of the shiny piece. See more here.

Interesting to note, closeup views reveal more spherical “blueberries” similar to what the Opportunity rover found at its landing site in Meridiani Planum and at its current location near Endeavour Crater, too.


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.

  • Torbjörn Larsson October 11, 2012, 5:46 PM

    Assuming the identification of this as duct tape (or something similar) is correct, what are the risks?

    #1. Earth derived plastic gets into the SAM. A serious risk for incapacitating much of it and its ability to look at pristine martian samples. This is likely why they want to understand what and how much came off. (Eg is there more in the scoop? The filters will stop the larger stuff, but not the smaller flakes.)

    High risk, bad outcome for the main mission targets.

    #2. Curiosity is incapacitated in some function, whether by vital plastics coming off or getting stuck in mechanisms.

    Low risk, some problems for the main mission targets.

    #3. Polluting the local biosphere.

    The surface is sterile by UV light, so no microbes are present or able to use hydrocarbons as a nutrient source.

    Any extant life would most likely still be using carbon dioxide as the main source for carbon fixation. It is readily available, and phylogenetics predicts this was what early autotrophs used here up until the domain diversification or in other words likely for half the biosphere age. [“The Emergence and Early Evolution of Carbon-Fixation”, Braakman et al, PLOS Comp Biol 2012; “The evolution and functional repertoire of translation proteins following the origin of life”, Goldman et al, Biol Dir 2010.]

    Over the coming years this plastic will break down into water and carbon dioxide (and possibly ammonia if nitrogen based), all chemicals extant in the biosphere. In other words this is a harmless nutrient source that will not affect the biosphere at all.

    If you are looking for a much bigger piece of imported hydrocarbons, look at the chutes, backshell, defunct crafts – all of which will undergo the same breakdown and have the same null effect on any existing biosphere.

  • Stephen Downie October 12, 2012, 5:20 AM

    Sigh, I came here looking for some interesting discussion and all I found was SJStar. He has made me a sad panda.

  • Knight October 19, 2012, 11:37 PM

    To me looking at it quickly in black and white, it kind of looks more like a shell… A shell of a small lobster or shrimp.