15 Sep 2012

NASA scientists are puzzled over strange unusual spherical rock formations on Mars in an image taken by the Opportunity rover.

A new Mars photo shows a close-up of a rock outcrop called Kirkwood covered in what appears to be blister-like bumps which scientists have yet to explain.  At first glance these formations are similar to the Martian "blueberries" which were first seen by Opportunity in 2004 but the new formations are different in several ways.  According to rover mission principal investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithica, NY:

This is one of the most extraordinary pictures from the whole mission. Kirkwood is chock full of a dense accumulation of these small spherical objects. Of course, we immediately thought of the blueberries, but this is something different. We never have seen such a dense accumulation of spherules in a rock outcrop on Mars.

The new photo is from a mosaic of four images taken by a microscope-like imager on Opportunities robotic arm and then stitched together by scientists on Earth as seen below.

Opportunity is currently in an area known as Cape York along the western rim of a giant Martian crater called Endeavour.  It originally landed on Mars in 2004 (along with Spirit) to explore different regions.

The blueberries were discovered in 2004 just after landing.  That formation was actually iron-oxide concretions created by minerals in water that settled into sedimentary rock.

Martian blueberries have been seen at many sites but the bumpy, spherical formations on the Kirkwood rock are something new according to scientists and researchers.  In the new photo many features appear to be broken and appear to have odd concentric circles inside.  Squyres said:

They seem to be crunchy on the outside, and softer in the middle. They are different in concentration. They are different in structure. They are different in composition. They are different in distribution.  So, we have a wonderful geological puzzle in front of us.

Squyres and his team have come up with a few theories but they have yet to come up with one that is the best explanation for the strange bumps.

The Tech-Stew Take Home

It will certainly be interesting to hear the theories on these new formations.  But lets take a look back at the iron-oxide blueberries from 2004 (see image below) and compare with some found on Earth.  Earth-based similar formations can be found near the Colorado River in Utah.  There are concretions in this location that range in size from small marbles to cannonballs that consist of a "hard shell of iron oxide surrounding a softer sandy interior."

Scientists thought the Utah concretions were formed by simple chemical reactions without any assistance by life.  There is new research suggesting that there is actually clear evidence that microbes were essential for their formation.

So at least in the case of the 2004 blueberries, there is at least some chance that their formation not only was indicative of water but possibly life as well. 

For the Kirkwood formation, scientists will study the images and continue to come up with theories for the strange appearance of these new formations, possibly looking closer to home for a Martian explanation.

Source: Space.com, Phys.org

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