New mystery rock shows up in MER-Opportunity photo

22 Jan

Just ahead of it it’s 10th birthday on the red planet, Opportunity has started a discussion around new rock!

Two images taken of the rover’s work area, taken two weeks apart, show that a new doughnut-sized white rock has appeared – apparently out of nowhere.

NASA said Tuesday, “the site is on ‘Murray Ridge’ – a section of the rim of Endeavour Crater where Opportunity is working on north-facing slopes during the rover’s sixth Martian winter.”

Currently two theories have arisen as to where the new rock may have come from.

The first idea put forward by scientists is that the rover itself may have dislodged the rock with its wheels while driving around. Additionally, the white coloration could be a result of the wheels flipping the rock over and exposing the underside.

The new mystery rock has been named ‘Pinnacle Island’ and has excited scientists working on the mission.

In a statement on Tuesday, NASA said, “much of the rock is bright-toned, nearly white. A portion is deep red in color. Pinnacle Island may have been flipped upside-down when a wheel dislodged it, providing an unusual circumstance for examining the underside of a Martian rock.”

This before-and-after pair of images of the same patch of ground in front of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity 13 days apart documents the arrival of a bright rock onto the scene. (NASA/JPL)

This before-and-after pair of images of the same patch of ground in front of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity 13 days apart documents the arrival of a bright rock onto the scene. (NASA/JPL)

All the other rocks in the area appear the more typical Mars reddish-brown.

The second theory is that a meteorite may have impacted the surface somewhere nearby and this rock, which does look unlike other rocks in the area. The new mystery rock could be a small fragment of the meteorite.

The first image of the area was taken on December 26, 2013 on Sol 3528. The second image was taken on January 8, 2014 on Sol 3540.

A ‘Sol’ refers to a Martian day, which is 40 minutes longer than an Earth-day.

The Sol reference number explains the number of days since Opportunity landed on Mars a decade ago – on January 25, 2004.

Opportunity has far exceeded its original mission, which was set to last for 90 days. (there are some festivities planned for later in the week the celebrate the anniversary)

The images for this mystery were taken using Opportunity’s panoramic camera, or ‘Pancam’.

If either theory is true about where this rock came from, what a great opportunity (pardon the pun) for science!

Isn’t it great that we have robots out there to investigate things like this?

Though the flip side: imagine how much we must be missing because space is very dynamic and we only have a few robots out there watching.

(A newsy version of this article also appears on Sun News Network)

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