NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity landed on the area of Mars called Meridiani Planum to search for water and is currently exploring the Murray Ridge, where it photographed a rock that is being described as looking like a jelly doughnut. The rover has been stuck on the northern slopes of Murray Ridge due to the intense Martian winter storms. Opportunity had been repeatedly photographing the area around it and thus scientists were able to spot the rock that was not there in a previous photo taken 12 days earlier.
The rock, which has been named Pinnacle Island, has a white edge with a deep red center. Opportunity had to maneuver itself over towards the rock, as the decade-old robot has lost the movement of its shoulder joint, so scientists must position it right over the rock to examine it. Opportunity’s findings have further baffled NASA scientists, as the rock is composed of large quantities of sulfur and magnesium, reportedly a level of magnesium that is higher than anything found on Mars so far.
The news of the mysterious jelly doughnut rock has delighted NASA scientists. Lead scientist for NASA Steve Squyres, who broke the news to the world, stated that the rock is just one example of the continuing discoveries that the rovers are making.
NASA scientists have been fighting over the possible origins of the rock’s appearance. One theory is that the rock was shot out of a smoking hole somewhere nearby caused through meteorite impact. However, Squyres is not convinced by this theory. He has stated that there is no such smoking hole nearby. The other theory, which has been put forward is more plausible, according to Squyres. Opportunity has a faulty actuator on its right side. The actuator is a type of motor used to propel and steer each wheel individually. In this case, the right actuator jams, causing Opportunity’s wheel to shudder as it turns. Opportunity passed nearby the place where the rock was found and the shaking motion of the wheel may have dislodged one of the stones and flipped it over a few feet away.
This motion of flipping over the rock could explain the deep red center. The exposed underside has been kept safe from winds and cosmic rays for billions of years. But this theory does not satisfy all NASA experts and the rock has been the cause of much contention.
The Mars rovers were expected to expire after 90 days, so NASA is extremely pleased to have an ongoing exploration. So far, four rovers have been sent to Mars: Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. Sojourner and Spirit are now inactive. Spirit became stuck in the soft soil of Mars and acted for a while as a stationary scientific platform until it ceased communication in 2010. Sojourner was a much smaller vehicle and lasted only a few months. Opportunity and Curiosity are still functioning. NASA continues to be surprised at the data that they each send back, especially as they have each outlived their predicted lifetimes.
Opportunity’s discovery of the mystery jelly doughnut comes on the heels of NASA’s celebration of a decade of Martian exploration.
By Sara Watson