The Rock that Appeared Out of Nowhere on Mars

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

89 Replies to “The Rock that Appeared Out of Nowhere on Mars”

  1. Eeyup… a wheel can spit a rock, who hasn’t seen that happen? The wheels on Curiosity definitely look like they’d spit rocks! Bet it was the middle wheel on the same side? The team should take more pics of all six wheels! Remember when Spirit dragged a wheel and discovered ‘pay dirt’? Maybe Curiosity did too? SPLIT that rock wide open!

    1. Possibly true, though it’s the Opportunity rover, not Curiosity, that this article concerns. I’m curious about the “jelly” portion being so high in sulfur and magnesium may mean.

      1. Yer right! My bad… senior moment? Oppy rocks! That’s what I get for jumping around in 4 or 5 windows…

      2. NOW am thinking about the missing Methane gas signatures in the Martian atmosphere.. and assuming those organisms exist on a far removed cycle of reproduction. Some biological functions taking years or decades, even centuries?

      1. Not necessarily. Especially as it looks small. I have seen meteorites on Earth, simply sitting on the ground with no crater.

      2. Are you asking “were” they new? Unknown. I have dug around and seen no evidence of an old crater.

      3. I am nowhere near that distribution of tektite, and the specimens I have found, fully exposed, are not tektite. I do own some tektite from various sources, and they are not similar.

      4. One particular shot had three different meteorite examples. They were grouped together with the large crystalline nickel boulder from the first rover mission.

      5. Good theory, except we are talking about a meteorite that appeared on the surface rather suddenly with no signs of a crater, or any erosion around the object. I have seen both stony and ferric meteorites sitting on the surface with no signs of having eroded out of the soil. These meteorites were fully exposed and not fully, or partially (not even 1%) buried in surrounding earth. Two of them were in locations I frequent, and just like the mysterious object on Mars, were NOT there just weeks earlier, and no sign of any crater or impact due to their small size.

      6. No.

        We are talking about, “I have seen meteorites on Earth, simply sitting on the ground with no crater.”

      7. Yes, and how do you explain a meteorite sitting where no meteorite was, a few weeks ago? Not washing out of surrounding sediments (erosion.)

      8. I said we are talking about the object on Mars, and I was expressing how small meteorites can land on the surface without a crater. You said “no,” and stated we are talking about “I have seen meteorites on Earth, simply sitting on the ground with no crater.”

        Ejecta is not usually comprised of actual whole meteorites shaped by their entry into gaseous atmosphere. Ejecta is comprised mostly of the native rock which has been displaced by the force of a high-energy meteorite impact. The ejecta doesn’t necessarily contain fragments of the meteorite which caused the impact, but when it does, the odds are, they are mere fragments. The earth-bound meteorites I am discussing are not likely to be ejecta. They are whole, not fragments, having both been shaped by entry through our atmosphere, showing the pitting commonly caused by this. One has a small corner broken off (likely on entry.) I don’t see how a whole, un-fragmented, meteorite sitting on the surface, could be distal ejecta, unless it had been sitting near a very large meteorite impact. There was no large meteorite strike before the discovery of either of these meteorites (collected 7 years apart.) I am here to discuss what the object on Mars might be, and while I understand the desire to propose the object on Mars is ejecta of some sort (which I agree, could be a possibility,) I do not understand why you are insisting my two small whole meteorites with classic meteorite exterior, are ejecta.

      9. I still say “no”.

        Your discovery of meteorites on the ground has nothing to do with the Mars’ rock in the article. The meteorites you found on Earth are almost all distal ejecta and have eroded out of the underlying strata, just as fossils do, for instance. Of course they were part of a crater’s formation but that formation could be on the other side of the planet.

        Only 12 terrestrial meteor craters have meteorites associated with the crater.

        The rock on Mars is either ejecta from a recent impact, or less likely, a rock that just fell from the sky at no more than Martian terminal velocity.

        You need a primer. It will help your understanding. Don’t let the title confuse you, there are lots of introductory bits.

        French B. M. (1998) Traces of catastrophe: A handbook of shock-metamorphic effects in terrestrial meteorite impact structures. LPI Contribution No. 954. Houston, Texas, USA: Lunar and Planetary Institute. 120 p.


      10. Like I said,Poddy is messing with you. Or, it’s just the end of a bounce, having hit elsewhere.

  2. I wonder how long before conspiracy theorists and just exotic thinkers discover this thread. Well, they do bring clicks, don’t they.

    1. It’s already picked up by the tabloids in my country. “Not very” surprisingly they fail to mention any of Steve Squyres’ possible explinations. . .

  3. 2nd’s and 3rd’s? Placed there by an alien entity smart enough to know when the cameras weren’t imaging? Or perhaps by a time traveler as a practical joke?

    1. In “Pandora’s Star” by Peter F Hamilton: Man’s first landing and footsteps on Mars were interrupted by an eccentric scientist that discovered wormholes and how to harness them for travel. The scene was hilarious, and the book itself is a good read.

  4. Probably just a piece of a small meteorite that impacted close by, either that or it broke off from a collision between two larger asteroids, or from ejecta on an outer solar system moon (impact?) and by some one in a billion (billion billion?) chance just happened to land and then roll to that spot. That’s my idea. If that’s not the case, I’d gladly accept a crazier explanation.

    1. Yes, I proposed the meteorite idea a few hours earlier. I am glad to see someone else who agrees! No matter the cause of the trajectory that brought it there, I really think the meteorite theory is the most logical yet.

      1. Yes I saw it before writing my post and I fully agree, the meteorite theory is indeed the most logical in my mind.

  5. OBVIOUSLY, it was there all along, until it got picked up by a Spican Time-Rider from the Mind Dimension earlier on. Most likely needed it to repair its gravity drive.

  6. On the ‘before’ picture, there is a formation with the same shape as the rock in the ‘after’ picture, at almost the exact position of the rock, only it’s colored the same as the underlying rock…

    1. It seems as though no one else is listening, but I think that you are right. Do you think that the “rock” may be some type of material that came out of the underlying rock along the lines that you indicated?

      1. I really don’tknow, I just noticed the shape of the rubble on the before picture is the same as the rock in the after picture. I’m inclined to think this is a hoax. The ‘rock’ is rather odd-looking anyway, and the chance of it having the same shape (including the internal ’round dent’) as the underlying rubble is just incredible.

    2. Couldn’t be the same structure we can see on the previous picture. I suppose that the light conditions are different (at least the first picture seems darker) en the darkest spot on the first location is becoming the brightest on the second. Maybe we are looking to far for searching an explanation.

    3. It was airbrushed and photo-cropped in, so it appears. NASA is famous for their airbrushing of pictures on Mars.

    4. i thought that at first. The first image has what looks like a trapezoid crack or trench, and the second one has a similar trapezoid doughnut. It seems odd that a wheel should chuck up a rock that is the same shape.

      The third photo is helpful. It is a pity we don’t have a ‘before’ picture that is as good. What we have now looks less like a Krispy Kreme, and more like half of an egg sandwich, with something dark growing on it, rather than a hole. Back to the original images, you can see the new rock is in a different place, to the left of the original crack; it overlaps the top edge of the plate of rock it is sitting on, and it is casting a shadow like the smaller rocks are in the first picture.

      It is odd, but I think the apparent shape match is coincidental, and probably not convincing from another angle. It would be nice to check when the rover has moved a bit. But it is a weird looking bit of rock. Or Martian, as the case may be.

    5. I noticed that, too. But as someone else says, the rock is not in exactly the same place: you can see the sort of pincer-shaped pattern in the before picture sticking out underneath it. I also notice that the underside of the rock is colored similarly to the surface in the area. This seems consistent with the idea that the rock was kicked up by the rover’s wheels and ended up inverted, with the white part being the part that was underground and unexposed before it was kicked up. (And I can’t help but point out the cross (or is it the letter “h” or some Chinese character?) above and to the right of the rock in the B&W images…;->)

  7. A great granddaddy blue berry muffin kicked up by the rover! Find the other half! Funny if this turned out to be one of the most significant finds of the mission.

  8. Looks like a living creature that moved there in the same way our star fish move ,who knows this could be the shape of life on Mars……..

  9. that’s not a rock. it’s clearly a piece of martian skull. or maybe it’s just a rock. but probably not.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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?

  13. 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’?

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

      Curiosity changes the local E/M gradient?

  14. 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?

    1. 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.

  15. 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.

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

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

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