On Mars, an unusual event involving a rock has scientists and the media raising eyebrows. Specifically, a doughnut-shaped and -sized rock appears in photographs of an area of Martian ground where it previously did not. These images were taken by the NASA Mars exploration rover named Opportunity. The mysterious rock did not become visible until after a second set of pictures of the same area of ground on Mars were taken.
The two Martian photos were taken 13 days apart in an area of Mars called Murray Ridge. The first of these pictures was created on Dec. 26, 2013, and is documented at the NASA Mars Exploration Rover Mission's website in its panoramic photos under the label SOL 3528. The second picture was taken on Jan. 8, 2014, and is viewable under the NASA picture file SOL 3540. When looking at the two sets of images, it becomes clear something odd happened in the vicinity of the rover.
A couple of possible reasons explain the appearance of the rock named “Pinnacle Island”; however, a rover-related incident is believed to be the most likely cause. According to NASA, the exploration rover had driven a short distance before taking more snapshots. It is believed the movement of its wheels is what caused the mysterious rock to appear in a location where it had not in the earlier set of pictures. More specifically, the skidding of a stuck wheel is hypothesized to have been what projected the rock to the location in the second photograph.
After studying the rock, which is believed to have been overturned, Opportunity's onboard equipment found a high level of sulfur, magnesium and manganese per a Discovery News report. In addition, it is quite possible the rock had previously rested in an undisturbed position for a very long time, possibly billions of years. Thus, Opportunity literally created an opportunity for scientists to investigate the underside of a rock in a largely un-tampered condition.
The unintended benefit of Pinnacle Island's discovery is what it reveals about the surface of Mars. Moreover, the chemical structure of the rock is not considered typical of anything that has already been found and studied by equipment on the planet. This opens the door to possibilities regarding Mars' geological history and has scientists quite excited. It also means Mars may smell, according to Senior Space Writer Leonard David. Furthermore, the rock, which is high in sulfur, adds further evidence of potentially smelly and toxic sulfur deposits on the planet.
Even though the Mars exploration rover's age is not a factor in the photograph, it is relevant to what is in the photo. In other words, on a planet where mostly natural events are the only ones that occur, this mystery rock suggests humans really have begun influencing extraterrestrial events. This recent occurrence and the Opportunity rover, which marks its 10th birthday on the planet on Jan. 24, 2014, demonstrates the ability of humans to manipulate both indigenous and non-indigenous objects on other planets.