While using its robotic arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera to take some close up photos of the surface of a rocky outcrop at a location dubbed "Yellowknife Bay" on Dec. 19 (sol 132 of the mission), a bright object could be seen in one of the raw images uploaded to the mission's website. Its discovery has caused quite a stir on AboveTopSecret.com where it was first reported.
Alerted to the mystery feature, MSNBC's Alan Boyle assumed it was just another piece of litter accidentally dropped from the rover. However, this isn't the case. On putting the question to NASA spokesman Guy Webster, it appears initial analysis has confirmed it is part of the rock and not something dropped on top.
"That appears to be part of the rock, not debris from the spacecraft," Webster told Boyle in an email.
So what could it be? The high-resolution MAHLI camera is intended to snap close-up observations of Mars surface features - acting like hand lens magnifiers used by geologists in the field. Therefore, the object - that, as noted by Boyle, is shaped like a tiny ‘flower' - is pretty small.
Naturally, the ever-optimistic and irrational part of my brain wants this to be evidence of some kind of Mars fossil, but in all likelihood, it's a concentration of minerals embedded in the rock. The former may sound more exciting, but the latter is the most likely explanation.
The human brain often attaches significance to random shapes, concluding that if it looks like a flower on Mars, then it must be something biological. This is a psychological phenomenon known as "pareidolia" - and Mars is a very fertile environment for fooling our brains with random shapes.
So, we should wait until Curiosity's mission scientists have a moment to analyze the object and, if necessary, command the rover to take a closer look. We're only just scraping the surface of the red planet, there's plenty mysteries to come...
Source: Alan Boyle, Cosmic Log
Image: The MAHLI image of interest, plus magnified view of the mystery object (contrast enhanced). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, edit by Ian O'Neill.