Share

NASA Solves Mystery of Mars 'Jelly Doughnut'

Miriam Kramer
Published: February 15, 2014

NASA

Scientists have solved the mystery of the strange "jelly doughnut" rock on Mars.

NASA's Opportunity rover spotted an odd Martian rock that looked like a doughnut on Jan. 8. Four days earlier, however, the rock wasn't there at all. So how did the rock appear? Alien rock throwers? A nearby meteorite impact?

The truth is much less surprising. Scientists working with the intrepid robot have just confirmed that the rock (called Pinnacle Island) was simply kicked up by one of Opportunity's wheels as it made its way across the planet's surface. [Amazing Photos from NASA's Opportunity Mars Rover]

"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," Opportunity deputy principal investigator Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, said in a statement. "We drove over it. We can see the track. That's where Pinnacle Island came from."

(MORE: Amazing Finds on Google Earth)

The rock stirred up enough controversy that a concerned citizen even filed a lawsuit against the space agency, claiming that NASA failed to properly investigate a possible fungus growing on the Red Planet.

Although researchers figured out where the rock came from, there are other weird aspects of the Pinnacle Island tale. Using Opportunity's tools, mission scientists have discovered that the rock has very high levels of sulfur and manganese. Both of those elements are water-soluble, suggesting that they were concentrated in the rock due to the "action of water," NASA officials said.

"This may have happened just beneath the surface relatively recently, or it may have happened deeper below ground longer ago and then, by serendipity, erosion stripped away material above it and made it accessible to our wheels," Arvidson said.

The rock is located in a spot on "Murray Ridge" along the wall of Endeavour Crater, where Opportunity is spending the Martian winter. Now that the rover is done examining Pinnacle Island, the Opportunity team is planning to drive the rover uphill to check out exposed rock layers on a different part of the Martian surface.

"We are now past the minimum solar-energy point of this Martian winter," Opportunity project manager John Callas, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement. "We now can expect to have more energy available each week. What's more, recent winds removed some dust from the rover's solar array. So we have higher performance from the array than the previous two winters."

Opportunity has been exploring Mars since 2004, landing on the Red Planet a few weeks after its twin, Spirit, touched down on the Martian surface. Both rovers were assigned 90-day missions, but Spirit gathered data until 2010 and Opportunity is still roving along.

Copyright 2014 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

MORE: Stunning Images From the Red Planet

The Red Planet

The Red Planet

NASA

This image released Aug. 27, 2003 captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope shows a close-up of Mars when the telescope was 34,648,840 miles away. The picture, assembled from a series of exposures, was taken just 11 hours before the planet made its closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years.

  • The Red Planet
  • Echus Chasma
  • Dunes and Ripples
  • Dunes Distribution and Shape
  • Arabia Region Crater
  • The Target for Curisoity
  • Fluvial Fan on Crater Floor
  • Fresh Crater Impact
  • Martian Soil
  • Global Dust Storm
  • Three Generations of Rovers
  • Close Encounter

Featured Blogs

Earth Has its Warmest Summer and August on Record

By Dr. Jeff Masters
September 18, 2014

August 2014 and the summer of 2014 were Earth's warmest since records began in 1880. Global ocean temperatures during August 2014 were the warmest on record, and the 0.65°C (1.17°F) ocean temperature anomaly was the highest ever measured, beating the record set just two months previously in June 2014. The first eight months of 2014 (January–August) were the third warmest such period on record for the globe.

August 2014 Global Weather Extremes Summary

By Christopher C. Burt
September 12, 2014

August featured a record heat wave in the Baltics and Belarus, record cold in Northern Ireland, extreme rainfall events along the U.S. East Coast and in Michigan. Deadly flooding in Nepal and India killed at least 200 and Typhoon Halong hit Japan. A rare tropical storm struck the Big Island of Hawaii. Perth, Australia had its warmest August on record while Darwin measured its coldest August temperature on record.

Live Blog: Tracking Hurricane Arthur as it Approaches North Carolina Coast

By Shaun Tanner
July 3, 2014

This is a live blog set up to provide the latest coverage on Hurricane Arthur as it threatens the North Carolina Coast. Check back often to see what the latest is with Arthur. The most recent updates are at the top.

Tropical Terminology

By Stu Ostro
June 30, 2014

Here is some basic, fundamental terminology related to tropical cyclones. Rather than a comprehensive and/or technical glossary, this represents the essence of the meaning & importance of some key, frequently used terms.

2013-14 - An Interesting Winter From A to Z

By Tom Niziol
May 15, 2014

It was a very interesting winter across a good part of the nation from the Rockies through the Plains to the Northeast. Let's break down the most significant winter storms on a month by month basis.

What the 5th IPCC Assessment Doesn't Include

By Angela Fritz
September 27, 2013

Melting permafrost has the potential to release an additional 1.5 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and could increase our global average temperature by 1.5°F in addition to our day-to-day human emissions. However, this effect is not included in the IPCC report issued Friday morning, which means the estimates of how Earth's climate will change are likely on the conservative side.