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Mars ‘doughnut’ mystery solved

NASA scientists were surprised to find a strange rock that suddenly appeared in front of the Opportunity rover on Jan. 8. .
NASA scientists were surprised to find a strange rock that suddenly appeared in front of the Opportunity rover on Jan. 8. . NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

TORONTO – The mystery of the white Martian “doughnut” that turned up out of nowhere in a photograph has been solved.

On Jan. 8, the NASA rover Opportunity photographed an area it had photographed just 12 days earlier. Instead of seeing the same barren, reddish landscape as it had before, a bright, white rock had appeared.

NASA scientists had speculated that the unusual rock, dubbed “Pinnacle Island,” was the result of Opportunity kicking up rock as it moved. They believed that the rock had been flipped upside down, exposing its underside. It wouldn’t have seen light in perhaps thousands if not millions of years, giving it its unsual appearance. And this, scientists confirmed on Friday, was exactly what it was.

This image from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows where a rock called “Pinnacle Island” had been before it appeared in front of the rover in early January 2014.
This image from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows where a rock called “Pinnacle Island” had been before it appeared in front of the rover in early January 2014. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

“Once we moved Opportunity a short distance, after inspecting Pinnacle Island, we could see directly uphill an overturned rock that has the same unusual appearance,” said Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis. “We drove over it. We can see the track. That’s where Pinnacle Island came from.”

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Now that the mystery has been solved, Opportunity — which just celebrated its 10th anniversary on Mars — is once again headed on the road for further scientific study of the Martian landscape.