Mars Curiosity Rolls Up to Potential New Meteorite

This peculiar rock, photographed on Jan. 12 (Sol 1577) by NASA’s Curiosity rover, appears to be a metal meteorite. When confirmed, this would be the rover’s third meteorite find on the Red Planet. Click for the high resolution original. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Rolling up the slopes of Mt. Sharp recently, NASA’s Curiosity rover appears to have stumbled across yet another meteorite, its third since touching down nearly four and a half years ago. While not yet confirmed, the turkey-shaped object has a gray, metallic luster and a lightly-dimpled texture that hints of regmaglypts. Regmaglypts, indentations that resemble thumbprints in Play-Doh, are commonly seen in meteorites and caused by softer materials stripped from the rock’s surface during the brief but intense heat and pressure of its plunge through the atmosphere.

Closeup showing laser zap pits. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Oddly, only one photo of the assumed meteorite shows up on the Mars raw image site. Curiosity snapped the image on Jan. 12 at 11:21 UT with its color mast camera. If you look closely at the photo a short distance above and to the right of the bright reflection a third of the way up from the bottom of the rock, you’ll spy three shiny spots in a row. Hmmm. Looks like it got zapped by Curiosity’s ChemCam laser. The rover fires a laser which vaporizes part of the meteorite’s surface while a spectrometer analyzes the resulting cloud of plasma to determine its composition. The mirror-like shimmer of the spots is further evidence that the gray lump is an iron-nickel meteorite.

Meet Egg Rock, another iron-nickel meteorite and Curiosity’s second meteorite find. The white spots/holes are where the object was zapped by the rover’s laser to determine its composition. The rover spotted Egg Rock (about the size of a golfball) on Oct. 27, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity has driven more than 9.3 miles (15 km) since landing inside Mars’ Gale Crater in August 2012. It spent last summer and part of fall in a New Mexican-like landscape of scenic mesas and buttes called “Murray Buttes.” It’s since departed and continues to climb to sequentially higher and younger layers of the lower part of Mt. Sharp to investigate additional rocks. Scientists hope to create a timeline of how the region’s climate changed from an ancient freshwater lake environment with conditions favorable for microbial life (if such ever evolved) to today’s windswept, frigid desert.

Assuming the examination of the rock proves a metallic composition, this new rock would be the eighth discovered by our roving machines. All of them have been irons despite the fact that at least on Earth, iron meteorites are rather rare. About 95% of all found or seen-to-fall meteorites are the stony variety (mostly chondrites), 4.4% are irons and 1% stony-irons.

Curiosity found this iron meteorite called “Lebanon” back in 2014. It’s about two yards or two meters wide (left to right). The smaller piece in the foreground is named “Lebanon B. This photo combines a series of high-resolution circular images across the middle taken by the Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) with a MastCam image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS/MSSS

NASA’s Opportunity rover found five metal meteorites, and Curiosity’s rumbled by its first find, a honking hunk of metallic gorgeousness named Lebanon, in May 2014. If this were Earth, the new meteorite’s smooth, shiny texture would indicate a relatively recent fall, but who’s to say how long it’s been sitting on Mars. The planet’s not without erosion from wind and temperature changes, but it lacks the oxygen and water that would really eat into an iron-nickel specimen like this one. Still, the new find looks polished to my eye, possibly smoothed by wind-whipped sand grains during the countless Martian dust storms that have raged over the eons.

Curiosity really knows how to put you on Mars. This view of exposed bedrock and dark sands was taken by the rover’s navigation camera on Friday, Jan. 13. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Why no large stony meteorites have yet to be been found on Mars is puzzling. They should be far more common; like irons, stonies would also display beautiful thumprinting and dark fusion crust to boot. Maybe they simply blend in too well with all the other rocks littering the Martian landscape. Or perhaps they erode more quickly on Mars than the metal variety.

Every time a meteorite turns up on Mars in images taken by the rovers, I get a kick out of how our planet and the Red One not only share water, ice and wind but also getting whacked by space rocks.

Curiosity Finds a Melted Space Metal Meteorite on the Surface of Mars

Since it landed on the surface of the Red Planet in 2012, the Curiosity rover has made some rather surprising finds. In the past, this has included evidence that liquid water once filled the Gale Crater, the presence of methane and organic molecules today, curious sedimentary formations, and even a strange ball-shaped rock.

And most recently, Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) captured images of what appeared to be a ball of melted metal. Known as “Egg Rock” (due to its odd, ovoid appearance) this object has been identified as a small meteorites, most likely composed of nickel and iron.

Egg Rock was first noticed in an image that was snapped by Curiosity on Oct. 28th, 2016, (or Sol 153, the 153rd day of Curiosity’s mission). The rover then snapped a two-frame portrait of the meteorite (seen below) two days later (on Sol 155) and studied it using its ChemCam’s Remote Micro-Imager (RMI). This provided not only a close-up of the strange object, but also a chance for chemical analysis.

Close up of Egg Rock, showing the laser reflection from Curiosity's ChemCam.  Credit: NASA/JPL
Close up of “Egg Rock”, showing the laser reflections from Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL

The chemical analysis revealed that the rock was composed of metal, which explained its melted appearance. In essence, it is likely the rock became molten as it entered Mars’ atmosphere, leading to the metal softening and flowing. Once it reached the surface, it cooled to the point that this appearance became frozen on its face.

Such a find is quite exciting, if not entirely unexpected. In the past, Curiosity and other rovers has spotted the remains of other metallic meteorites. For instance, back in 2005, the Opportunity rover spotted a pitted, basketball-sized iron meteorite that was named “Heat Shield Rock“.

This was followed in 2009 by the discovery of “Block Island“, a large dark rock that measured 0.6 meters (2 feet) across and contained large traces of iron. And in 2014, Curiosity spotted the mostly-iron meteorite that came to be known as “Lebanon” which measured 2 meters (6.5 feet) wide – making it the largest meteorite to ever be found on Mars.

However, “Egg Rock” is somewhat unique, in that its appearance seems more “melted” than meteorites spotted in the past. And as George Dvorsky of Gizmodo indicated, other aspects of its appearance (such as the long hollows) could mean that it lost material, perhaps when it still molten (i.e. shortly after it reached the surface).

Iron Meteorite on Mars. Opportunity finds an iron meteorite on Mars, the first meteorite of any type ever identified on another planet. The pitted, basketball-size object is mostly made of iron and nickel. Opportunity used its panoramic camera to take the images used in this approximately true-color composite on the Sol 339 (Jan. 6, 2005). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell
Image of the iron meteorite fpund on Mars by the Opportunity rover on the Sol 339 (Jan. 6th, 2005). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

And such finds are always interesting because they provide us with the opportunity to study chunks of the Solar System that might not survive the trip to Earth. Given its greater proximity to the Asteroid Belt, Mars is better situated to be periodically struck by objects that get kicked out of it by Jupiter’s gravity. In fact, it is theorized that this is how Mars got its moons, Phobos and Deimos.

In addition, meteorites are more likely to survive passing through Mars’ atmosphere, since it is only about 1% as dense as Earth’s. Last, but certainly not least, meteorites have been striking Earth and Mars for eons. But since Mars has had a dry, desiccated atmosphere for all of that time, meteorites that land on its surface are subject to less wind and water erosion.

As such, Martian meteorites are more likely to be intact and better preserved over the long haul. And studying them will give planetary scientists opportunities they may not enjoy here on Earth. Now if we could just transport some of these space rocks home for a more detailed analysis, we’d be in business! Perhaps that should be something for future missions to consider.

Further Reading: ASU – Red Planet Report