Updated 3:33 PM EST, Mon January 20, 2014
(CNN) — Did Mars rover Opportunity order a jelly doughnut?
Not quite, but scientists are baffled by a white rock with a dark red low spot in the middle that “just plain appeared at that spot” on the planet where the rover is situated, says Steve Squyres, lead scientist of the Mars Exploration Rover mission.
In recent weeks, Opportunity took photos of the same spot on Mars, 12 days apart. The rover’s panoramic camera showed only barren bedrock on mission day 3528 (in Mars time), but on day 3540, a photo of the same scene revealed the mysterious, doughnut-shaped rock.
Squyres showed photos of this ghostly geological dessert at a recent NASA event celebrating 10 years since the Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars.
Spirit’s mission ended in 2010 after losing the use of two wheels, and ceasing to communicate. But Opportunity is still chugging along and finding new surprises, such as this rock.
“One of the things I like to say is that Mars keeps throwing new things at us,” Squyres said at the event, gesturing toward the rock photo and laughing.
The photos of the outcrop showing the absence, and then presence, of the pastry-sized rock were taken 12 days apart. The rover had not driven over that spot, Squyres said.
There are two leading theories about where the rock, called “Pinnacle Island,” came from. Neither of them include the possibility of an intergalactic Dunkin’ Donuts.
The most likely scenario is that Opportunity flicked the rock with one of its wheels.
“We had driven a meter or two away from here, and somehow maybe one of the wheels, kind of, managed to spit it out of the ground, and have it slide to this position,” Squyres said.
Alternatively, there could be a smoking hole in the ground nearby and the rock could be a piece of crater ejecta, or piece of matter spewn from the hole. Squyres doesn’t think this is likely, however.
Opportunity is now studying the mystery rock more extensively, making measurements and taking pictures. Its instruments have shown scientists that the “jelly” part is “like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” Squyres said.
It’s very high in sulfur and magnesium, and it has twice as much manganese as has ever been seen in anything on Mars.
No one knows what that means.
“We’re completely confused, we’re having a wonderful time, everyone on the team is arguing and fighting,” Squyres said.
Spirit landed on January 4, 2004, followed by Opportunity on January 25, 2004. Their primary missions were designated for a mere 90 days, but both far outlasted that target.
Squyres said he used to think that no matter how long the rovers lasted, at some point there would be a point in the mission where the team could say “We’re finished” — that they had learned everything could about Mars with those particular vehicles.
But the Red Planet isn’t like that.
“There will be something tantalizing, something wonderful just beyond our reach that we didn’t quite get to, and that’s the nature of exploration,” he said.
Opportunity has otherwise encountered scientifically important phenomena during its decade of investigation. At Endeavor Crater, where it is today, the rover found clay minerals that form in watery conditions, and indicate that water with a neutral pH could have once been there, which would be conducive to microbial life if there had been any.
Endeavor has also unveiled veins of a mineral that appears to be gypsum, which is deposited by water.
Opportunity is not the only robot roaming Mars. NASA’s 2-ton Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012, has an even more powerful suite of scientific instruments. Because of Curiosity’s findings, NASA announced for the first time last year that life could have existed on Mars.
NASA is planning another rover mission in 2020 — and that future robot could, possibly, collect samples that would later return to Earth for further study.
Such sophisticated technologies will help us see what other mysterious “sweets” the planet can deliver.
by Mike Wall, SPACE.com Senior Writer
Date: 12 March 2013 Time: 01:00 PM ET
This story was updated at 3:00 p.m. EST.
It’s official: Primitive life could have lived on ancient Mars, NASA says.
A sample of Mars drilled from a rock by NASA’s Curiosity rover and then studied by onboard instruments “shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes,” NASA officials announced today (March 12) in a statement and press conference.
The discovery comes just seven months after Curiosity landed on Mars to spend at least two years determining if the planet could ever have hosted primitive life. To be clear, the new find is not evidence that Martian life has ever actually existed; Curiosity carries no life-detection instruments among its scientific gear.
“A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “From what we know now, the answer is yes.” [The Search for Life on Mars (Photo Timeline)]
Drilling into Mars
Curiosity drilled into a rock on Feb. 8, boring 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) into an outcrop called John Klein using its arm-mounted hammering drill — deeper than any robot had ever dug into the Red Planet before.
Two weeks later, the rover transferred the resulting gray powder sample into two onboard instruments called Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM.
CheMin and SAM identified some of the key chemical ingredients for life in this dust, including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon, researchers said. Intriguingly, the mix also suggested a possible energy source for indigenous Martian life, if any ever existed in the area.
“The range of chemical ingredients we have identified in the sample is impressive, and it suggests pairings such as sulfates and sulfides that indicate a possible chemical energy source for micro-organisms,” Paul Mahaffy, SAM principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a statement.
“We have found a habitable environment that is so benign and supportive of life that probably — if this water was around and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it,” said Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger, of Caltech in Pasadena.
Exactly when this water flowed or pooled is unknown, Grotzinger added, though it was likely at least three billion years ago or so. [The Search for Water on Mars (Photos)]
Still looking for complex organics
SAM is also capable of detecting organic chemicals, the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it.
The instrument detected two simple chlorinated organics at John Klein, chloromethane and dichloromethane, just it did in a scoop of soil late last year at a different site called Rocknest.
Mahaffy urged caution in interpreting the recent find, as the John Klein sample was the first one to go through Curiosity’s drill.
“There’s always the possibility that some residual carbon that was on the drill bit made its way into the sample,” he said. “So we’re really looking forward to repeating this experiment and seeing if these signatures of simple chloromethane compounds persist.”
The next drilling opportunity won’t come until May, researchers said, since the relative positions of Earth and Mars will make communicating with Curiosity difficult for most of April.
Curiosity still hasn’t found any complex organic compounds — things like amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. That’s not necessarily a surprise, researchers said, since such long, complicated molecules tend to be degraded over time, making their detection a challenge, even here on Earth.
Even if complex organics are absent at John Klein, the site could still have supported life, researchers said. SAM detected carbon dioxide in the drilled sample, showing that the area had a carbon source for putative microbes to tap into.
Carbon “can be inorganic to be utilized by a microbe,” Grotzinger said, pointing out that many micro-organisms on Earth feed on rocks and use carbon dioxide to generate the organics they incorporate into their cellular machinery.
Still, the rover team will continue searching for spots with a unique set of characteristics — including protection against Mars’ relatively high levels of radiation — that could allow organics to be preserved for billions of years.
“That could take the entire length of this mission, but we’re going to give it our best,” Grotzinger said.
Troubleshooting a glitch
Analysis of the drilled sample was complicated by a computer glitch that’s still affecting Curiosity today.
In late February, Curiosity’s handlers determined that a glitch had affected the flash memory on the rover’s main, or A-side, computer system. So they swapped the rover over to its backup (B-side) computer, which caused the robot to go into a protective “safe mode” on Feb. 28.
Curiosity emerged from this safe mode on March 2, only to be put on standby briefly once again a few days later to wait out a Mars-bound solar eruption. Full science operations have yet to resume, but Curiosity’s B-side computer is working well as engineers continue to work through the mysterious problem with the A-side, team members said.
“These tests have provided us with a great deal of information about the rover’s A-side memory,” Jim Erickson, Curiosity deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, said in a statement. “We have been able to store new data in many of the memory locations previously affected and believe more runs will demonstrate more memory is available.”
Engineers plan to upload two software patches later this week, then reassess when full mission operations can resume, officials said.
Curiosity landed inside Mars’ huge Gale Crater on Aug. 5, kicking off a two-year prime surface mission to determine if the Red Planet has ever been able to support microbial life. CheMin and SAM are two of the 10 instruments it carries to aid this quest.
While Curiosity has already made a number of interesting discoveries near its landing site — including an ancient streambed where water likely flowed continuously for thousands of years — its main destination is a set of interesting deposits at the base of Mount Sharp, which rises 3 miles (5 kilometers) from Gale’s Center.
Is something HUGE going on with Mars that NASA and the Department of Homeland Security DO NOT want the public to know about? Due to NASA’s new found ‘security obsession’ with the Mars Rover, over 100 NASA scientists and engineers have recently either quit their jobs or retired early. What in the world are NASA and the Department of Homeland Security so obsessed about with Mars and the Mars Rover? According to this story at “This Can’t Be Happening”:
“Thanks to the zealous wackos at the Department of Homeland Security, back in 2007 during the latter part of the Bush administration an order went out that all workers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena–an organization that is run under contract to NASA by the California Institute of Technology, had to be vetted for high security clearance in order to continue doing their jobs. Never mind that not one of them was or is engaged in secret activities (NASA is a rigorously non-military, scientific agency which not only publishes all its findings, but which invites the active participation of scientists from around the world). In order to continue working at JPL, even scientists who had been with NASA for decades were told they would need a high-level security badge just to enter the premises. To be issued that badge, they were told they would need to agree undergo an intensive FBI check that would look into their prior life history, right back to college.”
Now, who would blame the many scientists and engineers at JPL who took this as an extreme invasion of their privacy? To get their clearance, TPTB were going to contact their neighbors and old colleagues to be interrogated about their drug-use, drinking habits, arrest records as kids, all the countless things that are looked into when doing a high-security background check. Why would NASA scientists be subject to the same prying invasion of their privacy that they would get if they were applying for jobs in the CIA or the Secret Service?
More from “This Can’t Be Happening“:
“Everyone who wanted to continue doing space science at JPL was told they had to submit to a security investigation.
The cost of this idiocy, which was aggressively pursued to a final pyrrhic victory in the High Court by the Obama Department of Justice (sic), has been grievous, as some 100 veteran scientists at JPL have quit or taken early retirement, rather than open their lives to the FBI.”
What in the world are NASA and the Department of Homeland Security HIDING up on Mars? Every day lately, we are learning more and more via NASA’s own photos, something BIG is going on up there! The security obsession being displayed by NASA and the DHS is just more proof that something HUGE is up. Americans deserve answers! Once again we are playing the whipping boy for a government out of control that does not have our best interests in mind. We pay their salaries, why shouldn’t we DEMAND answers from them or withhold their funding? These out of control, zealous wacko’s need to be broken!
To close this story, I’ll leave you with a comment from a former NASA employee and a closing statement from “This Can’t Be Happening“:
Not everyone who quit over this issue was a scientist. Susan Foster, a senior science writer at JPL, began her career there working as a secretary in 1968, even before the first Apollo moon landing. She says she quit solely because of the NASA requirement that she submit to a “waiving of my Fourth Amendment rights or be denied access to the facility” where she had worked for 44 years. She is currently unemployed and looking for work.
What upset her most, she says, was NASA’s plan to use the information it obtained on its scientists’ and employees’ lives to create a “suitability matrix,” which would be used to see if they merited continued employment. In questioning JPL management, Foster says people learned that this “suitability matrix” would be considering things like “whether JPL scientists had participated in political demonstrations that could qualify in NASA’s scheme of things as disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, unlawful assembly” — all activities that she says many of JPL’s scientists had engaged in over the years. Says Foster, “Criteria such as ‘attitude’ are pretty frightening in their subjectivity, and ‘striking against the government’ is chilling to anyone who has supported, say, a legitimate teachers’ action.”
This disaster at JPL is a classic case of the US security state run amok, and provides yet another example of how the Obama administration, which came into office in 2009 promising to return the country to some kind of sanity and respect for the Constitution, has instead driven 100 invaluable scientists out of JPL, weakening the nation’s already struggling space program, and has put hundreds of scientists’ lives, and the lives of their families, at risk.
By Daniel Carrington, The Space Reporter
It could be one of the most important discoveries in the history of NASA.
U.S. space agency officials reportedly are planning to announce a “major” discovery in December, leading to speculation that some form of life may have been discovered on Mars.
“This data is gonna be one for the history books,” NASA’s Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, told NPR on Tuesday, sparking speculation among the astronomy community. “It’s looking really good.”
It remains unclear what exactly NASA officials have discovered on the Red Planet. The discovery is reportedly the result of recent research conducted on Mars by Curiosity. The rover has spent the last several weeks roaming the planet in an effort to collect samples of soil and study the martian atmosphere. Speaking earlier this week NASA officials said the data collected during one of these missions led to the discovery.
“We’re getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting,” Mr. Grotzinger notes. “The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down.”
Over the coming weeks, NASA scientists will reportedly study the data in an effort to pin down the exact finding, according to various reports. The announcement comes just weeks after NASA said they have yet to find evidence that the planet most like Earth in the solar system has methane, a gas tied to biological processes.
That said, it has been noted that the discovery could relate to an earlier mission aimed at measuring radiation levels on the planet. Researchers announced earlier this month that data collected during a mission yielded surprising results, including the potential detection of methane. Using the car-sized mobile laboratory, NASA researchers said at the time that they had identified transient whirlwinds, mapped winds in relation to slopes, tracked daily and seasonal changes in air pressure, and linked rhythmic changes in radiation to daily atmospheric changes. The knowledge gained about these processes could have provided scientists with evidence about environmental changes on Mars that might have led to conditions favorable for life.
In between now and then, the rover is expected to continue its mission. During a Thanksgiving break, the team will use Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) from Point Lake to examine possible routes and targets to the east. A priority is to choose a rock for the first use of the rover’s hammering drill, which will collect samples of powder from rock interiors, according to researchers.
The $2.5 billion Curiosity rover landed inside Mars’ Gale Crater in early August. During a two-year prime mission, researchers will use Curiosity’s ten instruments to assess whether the study area ever has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. The mission is seen as a key test for studying whether a manned mission to the planet is possible.