Scientist Explains the Weird Shiny Thing on Mars

by Nancy Atkinson on February 12, 2013

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A zoomed-in view of the shiny protuberance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Image via 2di7 & titanio44 on Flickr.

A zoomed-in view of the shiny protuberance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems.

As we reported last week, images from the Curiosity rover showed what looked like a piece of shiny metal sticking out from a rock. Some of our readers suggested that it might be a handle or knob of some kind. It’s a knob, yes, says Ronald Sletten from the Mars Science Laboratory team, but a completely natural formation. Sletten, from the University of Washington, explained that, not surprisingly, it is actually a part of the rock that is different — harder and more resistant to erosion — than the rest of the rock it’s embedded in.

On Earth, as on Mars, “often you can see knobs or projections on surfaces eroded by the wind, particularly when a harder, less erodible rock is on top,” Sletten said, via an email to Universe Today from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory media relations office. “The rock on top of the projection is likely more resistant to wind erosion and protects the underlying rock from being eroded.”

As far as why it appears shiny, Sletten said, “The shiny surface suggests that this rock has a fine grain and is relatively hard. Hard, fine grained rocks can be polished by the wind to form very smooth surfaces.”

It also may be shiny because it is wind-blasted and therefore dust-free, Sletten said, “while the surfaces not directly being eroded by wind may have a fine layer of reddish dust or rock-weathering rind. The sandblasted surfaces may reveal the inherent rock color and texture.”

He added that the object is an interesting study in how wind and the natural elements cause erosion and other effects on various types of rocks.

A closeup of the shiny protuberance. Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems.

A closeup of the shiny protuberance. Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems.

In looking at a zoomed-in close-up of the “knob” or protuberance from the rock, Sletten said, “This knob has a different type of rock on the end of the projection. This rock may vary in composition or the rock grain size may be smaller.”

A shiny-looking Martian rock is visible in this image taken by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam) during the mission's 173rd Martian day, or sol (Jan. 30, 2013). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems.

A shiny-looking Martian rock is visible in this image taken by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) during the mission’s 173rd Martian day, or sol (Jan. 30, 2013). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems.

Because of the winds on Mars, there is quite a bit of erosion of rock, visible in the image above, as well as in many images from all the Mars rovers and landers. These type of surfaces are called “ventifacted” — wind-eroded surfaces caused by many fine particles of dust or sand impacting the surface over time. Areas of rocks may appear sculpted, as softer parts erode more easily or they may reflect small scale wind patterns, Sletten said.

In some ways, he added, it’s a lot like what happens to rocks in Antarctica. See the annotated images he provided below:

Annotated image supplied by Ronald Sletten, MSL science team.

Annotated image supplied by Ronald Sletten, MSL science team.

Annotated image supplied by Ronald Sletten, MSL science team.

Annotated image supplied by Ronald Sletten, MSL science team.

So, this weird shiny thing on Mars is nothing too out of the ordinary — not a door handle, hood ornament or not even Richard Hoagland’s bicycle, as was suggested by readers on our previous article.

But for one more look, here’s the 3-D version(make sure you use the red-green 3-D glasses):

3-D anaglyph from the right and left Mastcam from Curiosity showing the metal-looking protuberance. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Anaglyph by by 2di7 & titanio44 on Flickr.

3-D anaglyph from the right and left Mastcam from Curiosity showing the metal-looking protuberance. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Anaglyph by by 2di7 & titanio44 on Flickr.

The original raw image from the Curiosity rover can be seen here, and our thanks to Elisabetta Bonora, an image editing enthusiast from Italy, who originally pointed this image out to us.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Kevin T February 12, 2013 at 2:25 AM

..and I thought it was a particle of pre animate matter caught in the matrix…haha

billy_mavreas February 12, 2013 at 2:48 AM

nice typo on the hoogland.

billy_mavreas February 12, 2013 at 2:49 AM

so we’ll be seeing more of these shiney things i take it, them being natural and all
stating the obv

ren00r February 12, 2013 at 8:37 AM

and if not, what is the explanation that there is just one

Donald Grace February 12, 2013 at 6:04 AM

If there is one ,why not two or more close by ?

Stas Novikov February 12, 2013 at 9:11 PM

Actually, there is one more very close by ! Look at the biggest chunk of rock on the left with the 45 deg slope – one of its ridges has a similar shiny protrusion ! I pointed it out in a comment to the 1st article – nobody seemed to notice.

As I mentioned in my 1st comment, it looks like there are veins of harder mineral permeating these rocks that take quite a shine to the wind polish.

Misja van Laatum February 12, 2013 at 11:59 PM

Must be me, but I’m really not seeing it…

Thü February 13, 2013 at 9:58 AM

Me too, I can not see such other thing.

Hans Peter Uhrig February 12, 2013 at 8:12 AM

Well why do they send a multi billion dollar mobile laboratory to Mars if they can identify even the most curious things by low-medium quality jpg’s (remember the stream bed too)? Not even bothered to aim the ChemCam at that object just to be sure the visual identification as of “it looks like…” is valid eh? I would wish for a little bit more curiosity in the cause of this mission and not rely too much on visual identification only – albeit the imagery of MSL is very good compared to previous missions.

Regarding wind polishing (in a near vacuum atmosphere that is) vs. dust settling all around in the CURRENT environment: whats the difference on this object?

a little off-topic but significant here a statement from the Russian privateer who discovered a potentially dangerous asteroid recently:”In Mr Oreshko’s opinion, this once again proves that while technology plays a significant role in space exploration, attention to detail and open-mindedness are, in the end, what count the most.”

Misja van Laatum February 12, 2013 at 1:02 PM

Yes, I was wondering the same: why, if the wind polishes protruding rocks, ridges and edges, is only this tiny protuberance so shiny? All the surrounding rocks are covered in dust.
Also, I think the Antarctic ventifacts analogy falls a little short as there is no dust (to speak of) there…

stemloop February 13, 2013 at 12:12 AM

? There is dust in Antarctic dry valleys. It’s just a cold desert.

Misja van Laatum February 13, 2013 at 12:38 PM

Of course there is … but there’s hardly any to be seen in the pictures provided. And I do think Mars is significantly dustier…

stemloop February 13, 2013 at 12:24 AM

Investigating curious results of known processes isn’t why the NASA rover is on Mars.

Qev February 12, 2013 at 9:06 PM

So why are they bothering to look for evidence of water?

Hans Peter Uhrig February 13, 2013 at 10:29 AM

Hence its name curiosity? Seriously the “result of a known process” is nothing more or less than an educated or maybe a bit over-educated guess of busy mission scientists. MSL is or should not be an university seminar but pure exploration with a science background. Explorers would not take anything for granted and would love to investigate “curious results of known processes”. Who can say for sure that everything is what people/scientists think it is on an alien world.

Stan Burfield February 13, 2013 at 3:11 AM

For one thing, I don’t think it would be easy for the rover to turn around and go back and find something, especially something quite small, that we earthlings saw in a photo quite a while after the rover had left it behind.

Qev February 12, 2013 at 3:53 AM

He’s speaking awfully authoritatively for an object that hasn’t been inspected any closer than a pair of decent-resolution photographs. Be nice to find out what it’s actually composed of before dismissing it as “oh just a shiny wind-polished bit of rock”. I daresay it’s a natural formation, but it would be interesting to find out exactly what it is.

Dampe February 12, 2013 at 9:36 AM

Knobs on Mars? What a load of bollocks!

Sathya Rajan February 12, 2013 at 1:41 PM

That’s too perfect to be naturally formed. I think NASA have purposefully hidden high res images.

Mike Petersen February 12, 2013 at 2:17 PM

And another conspiracy theorist. Sheesh.

Shootist February 12, 2013 at 2:29 PM

Wolkenkuckucksheim

Olaf2 February 12, 2013 at 5:35 PM

Dumbass comment.

Mark Dunk February 12, 2013 at 2:42 PM

Looks like a Jaguar hood ornament to me . . .

Jimmy Mathieu February 12, 2013 at 5:37 PM

Ancient metallic meteorite fragment trapped in sedementary rocks then eroded after eons.

Aqua4U February 12, 2013 at 5:37 PM

Are we to assume mission managers have opted to not investigate further? Not that this object is critical to mission success, but still this interesting erosion artifact might prove beneficial to future martian construction efforts, composition dependent? What if it were proven to be made out of ‘unobtainium’?

Gary W. February 12, 2013 at 6:35 PM

nah…its the knuckle bone of a fossilized metallic Martian. That’s the story and I am sticking too it.

softeky February 12, 2013 at 7:44 PM

The object in question is obviously the main water shutoff valve for Mars. Once it is turned back on, the sprinklers will resume operation and terraforming may begin. The previous occupants turned the water off before they went on extended vacation.

Stan Burfield February 13, 2013 at 3:14 AM

Good one!!

Jamey Khamjani February 12, 2013 at 8:09 PM

ARE YOU F’N KIDDING ME??? Seriously… I mean do any of those pictures look remotely the same, and a smooth looking rock and something that looks like metal are two totally different things IMO. Like Hans said earlier. WHY on earth do the send this freaking rover to mars when they can’t make a pit stop at something that actually does look seriously interesting?? They could of used the chem cam on it and POW! We know exactly what it is….. I know you guys are on a schedule and all, but you have like 10 years to get where your going. JEEZ NASA, at least use our multibillion dollar TAXPAYER machine to analyze something that a good portion of the public finds strange! Stop looking for traces of water, when we all know that it was there in abundance and do something useful with that LIFE SIZE remote control car!!!!

Stan Burfield February 13, 2013 at 3:15 AM

Because the rover is long gone when we got a lot of these pictures.

Lorin Ionita February 13, 2013 at 8:42 AM

As far as I remember, the image came in before they started drilling.

Thomas smith February 12, 2013 at 3:09 PM

I believe it is natural but NASA is definitely hiding something from the public. It looks organic and you can clearly see a body, head, and legs. Especially the front legs which show the shadows under them as though the is a gap between them and the rock. Make up your own decission but it still looks wierd to me.

Thomas smith February 12, 2013 at 3:16 PM

Maybe they cant image it because of the very rare possibility that it is a Martian life form and that it has moved and is not there anymore. And as Jamey Khamjani and Hans said they should inspect it more if it is still there.

Pojsp February 12, 2013 at 8:20 PM

Did anyone notice the ‘tracks’ on either side of the object? It looks like the rover’s tracks, and if so, maybe that object is a piece of the rover that fell off? It seems that almost anything is a better explanation than those of the experts….

Misja van Laatum February 12, 2013 at 10:40 PM

Nah, this object is only about 5 mm in size (so tiny, really). If the depressions left and right of it were rover tracks (I don’t think they are) the object would be much, much bigger.

Aqua4U February 12, 2013 at 11:54 PM

Nope… If you go to the MRL raw images page (http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/) and take a look at image Mastcam: Left 2013-01-30 23:39:17 UTC on day 173… you will see that the rover did not go any closer. The images on either side of this particular image are part of a panorama scan and can be ‘pieced’ together…. There are no tracks there. Perhaps you are seeing ‘tracks’ where actually there are dust/sand filled in gaps between the rocks?

rdbrewer February 12, 2013 at 9:09 PM

I’m telling ya, it’s a hoodoo. A little one.

Richard February 13, 2013 at 2:22 AM

My problem with this story is that just like the crazies ready to label this a “alien object” science is ready to call this a piece of the rock that erodes slower than the rest of the mass. The truth is, unless you are there to actually examine it, test its compounds and physical make up then your really only guessing. Science is suppose to be based on fact and they should give their thoughts but exit with the parting comment that is is “only our best guess”.

Lorin Ionita February 13, 2013 at 8:48 AM

How did you get from shiny to organic? And at most you could say it looks like a hammer. But head and legs?

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