Depending on where you live, dropping litter out of your car window is a very unsavory habit - at worst, it's a crime. But when you're in the business of dominating another planet, litter-dropping is the inevitable downside of doing awesome stuff in space.
Enter Curiosity: The one ton, nuclear-powered, laser-armed, six-wheeled rover. And now, unashamed interplanetary litterbug.
While we were being distracted by the Red Bull Stratos skydive attempt yesterday (that ended up being aborted), Curiosity was busy playing with a scoopful of Mars dirt. Although this particular sample won't be analyzed for science, it is being used to "clean" any terrestrial contaminants from the robotic arm-mounted scoop.
A part of the cleaning process can be watched in the video below - the scooped regolith can be seen being shaken so the fine grains scrub the scoop's metallic surface.
But wait, what's that shiny thing on the ground? Mission managers called a halt to the scoop shaking to investigate.
Sure, the Mars surface contains lots of strange shapes - some of which may look more ‘alien' than usual - but this little shape isn't a rock and it certainly isn't a clump of dust. If you use your imagination, when looking through the view of Curiosity's mast-mounted ChemCam instrument (below), it almost looks like a snake's discarded skin after shedding... or perhaps some kind of plant?
Sadly, this isn't evidence of Martian flora or fauna, although the Mars rover team did spend most of yesterday analyzing the object to verify its origin. "The rover team's assessment is that the bright object is something from the rover, not Martian material," mission managers reported on Tuesday. "It appears to be a shred of plastic material, likely benign, but it has not been definitively identified."
I'm sure that conspiracy theorists are confounded by this explanation, but Curiosity is covered in pieces of plastic and it seems more likely that the mystery object used to be attached to the rover. The investigation will likely continue to assess where the object came from and whether its absence could have a detrimental impact on the mission.
So, in all likelihood, it is litter dropped by Curiosity. Should NASA pay a fine for dropping trash in a pristine environment? Sorry hypothetical Martians, NASA doesn't have a good track record in paying littering fines.
Images: (top) Curiosity's Mastcam looks down at the rover's robotic arm (plus filled scoop) and the small shiny object (circled). (bottom) A view through ChemCam - a close-up of the object in the Mars regolith. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech