TORONTO – NASA scientists celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Mars rover Opportunity by getting a gift that was out of this world.
On Jan. 8 — the 3540th Martian sol or Martian day — Opportunity imaged an area it had photographed 12 days earlier, on Dec. 26. To the surprise of scientists, a bright, white rock appeared in a spot where previously there had been nothing.
Dubbed “Pinnacle Island,” scientists surmise that the rock — the size of a doughnut — could have been knocked loose after the rover had completed a short drive.
Opportunity landed on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004. It’s counterpart, Spirit, landed on Jan. 3 on the other side of the planet.
The missions for both rovers were projected to last a mere 90 days. Ten years later, the Opportunity continues to provide scientists with mountains of data (Spirit stopped functioning on March 22, 2010).
During a press conference on Thursday at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory marking the 10th anniversary of the workhorse rover, Steve Squyres, Principal Investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Program, described the finding.
“Now, we don’t think that anything particularly exotic happened here. The most likely scenario is, just uphill from this location, as we were driving on some bedrock, the Opportunity rover did a pirouette, we call it a ‘turn in place’…we think that in the process of that wheel moving across the wheel, that we kind of flicked it…and that it moved to a location where we see it.”
The scientists have not found the hole where the rock may have come from, but they think this may be due to the solar arrays blocking the area. They will move Opportunity soon and re-examine the location.
Squyres said that the team believes that the rock was flipped and that what we are seeing is its underbelly.
“It appears that it may have flipped itself upside down…and if that’s the case, what we’re seeing is a surface, the underside of the rock in its original configuration, that hasn’t seen the Martian atmosphere in perhaps billions of years.”
It’s white around the edges and a “weird, deep red colour” in the interior. “It looks like a jelly doughnut.”
There’s a lot of sulfur and manganese, more than they’ve seen on Mars.
“We’re still working this out,” said Squyres.
“This is an ongoing story of discovery… Mars still keeps throwing new stuff at us. It’s these kinds of unexpected discoveries that make this mission continue to be the exciting, fun thing that it is.”