A strange rock that looks like a jelly doughnut has appeared on Mars, and scientists are closer to figuring out how it got there, a top NASA expert says.
The small, round object popped up in pictures taken 12 days apart by the US space agency’s decade-old Opportunity rover.
On December 26, it was not there. On January 8, it was. But what is it?
“It looks like a jelly doughnut, white around the outside, red in the middle,” said Steve Squyres, the principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rovers.
He described the tint as a “weird deep-red colour, not a Martian kind of red”, which is more of a rusty hue.
“We have looked at it with our microscope. It is clearly a rock,” he told reporters in a briefing to mark 10 years since NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity landed on the red planet.
But it is a kind of rock no Earthling has seen before.
Squyres said scientists believe the rock got there when the ageing rover did a pirouette in the dusty Martian soil and knocked loose a chunk of bedrock that rolled a short distance downhill.
“We think that in the process of that wheel moving across the ground, we kind of flicked it, kind of tiddly-winked it out of the ground and it moved to the location where we see it,” Squyres said.
Still, scientists have not found the divot the rock would have left behind.
As to why it is such an unusual colour, Squyres said it may be that humans are witnessing a surface that has not been exposed in a very, very long time.
“It appears that it may have flipped itself upside down,” he said.
“If that is the case, what we are seeing is we are seeing the surface, the underside of a rock, that hasn’t seen the Martian atmosphere for perhaps billions of years.”
Already, an analysis of the rock with the Opportunity’s spectrometer has shown a “strange composition, different from anything we have seen before”, he told reporters.
The rock has a lot of sulphur, along with very high concentrations of manganese and magnesium.
“We are still working this out. We are making measurements right now. This is an ongoing story of discovery,” he said.
Opportunity is one of two Mars Exploration Rovers. Its companion, Spirit, stopped communicating with Earth in 2010.