Scientists were baffled when a rock suddenly showed up in front of NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity, which hasn’t roved the surface in over a month.
Opportunity took a photo of the Martian surface and 12 Martian-days later it took the same picture. Scientists noticed a new rock the size of a donut was now in the frame.
“It’s about the size of a jelly doughnut. It was a total surprise, we were like ‘wait a second, that wasn’t there before, it can’t be right. Oh my god! It wasn’t there before!’ We were absolutely startled,” lead scientist of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission Steve Squyres told Discover News.
Squyres said the rock might have landed there after a nearby meteorite impact, but it’s far more likely that the rover “flipped” it into the frame while it was maneuvering.
“You think of Mars as being a very static place and I don’t think there’s a smoking hole nearby so it’s not a bit of crater ejecta, I think it’s something that we did … we flung it.”
The rover’s right front steering actuator had stalled and likely kicked up the rock, the back of which might not have seen the sun in billions of years.
“So if you do a turn in place on bedrock,” he added, “as you turn that wheel across the rock, it’s gonna kinda ‘chatter.’”
Scientists plan to study the rock, now that they’ve disturbed it.
“It obligingly turned upside down, so we’re seeing a side that hasn’t seen the Martian atmosphere in billions of years and there it is for us to investigate. It’s just a stroke of luck,” Squyres said.
Opportunity (MER-B) was launched along with the rover Spirit (MER-A) in 2003 as part of the space agency’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission to explore the geology and surface of the Red Planet. These rovers have characterized and logged a wide range of soil and rocks that clued us in to Mars’ watery past.
Opportunity has exceeded NASA’s expectation that it would only be active 90 Martian-days by almost 10 Earth-years.
Spirit became immobile in 2009 and ceased communication in 2010.
The Mars Exploration program also includes two Viking landers and the Mars Pathfinder probe.