Curiosity got shaved?

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2012 3:08 pm

Yesterday, the Mars rover Curiosity was using its scoop for the first time to grab a sample of Martian regolith (the crumbled sand, rock and dust covering the planet) when scientists back here on Earth spotted something funny looking. It was an object roughly a centimeter long that appeared shiny, in contrast to the rust-colored dust-covered pebbles and rocks around it.

Using the ChemCam, they took this close-up picture of the object:

I added the arrows. My first thought was that it looked like a piece of shredded plastic, and it may very well be something like that. Not from any Martian litterbugs, though! It’s probably something from the rover itself; it was spotted just after the scoop had dumped the regolith sample into a shaker which vibrated the material to help separate and analyze it. It seems likely whatever this thing is may have come off then.

No matter what it is, it’s stopped Curiosity’s mission progress until it can be figured out. If it’s something that got shaved off the rover itself that might be kindof important. Also, if something like that got caught in the sampling scoop, or someplace else, it could do anything from mess up the observations to damage the rover itself (if it wasn’t the result of some kind of damage in the first place). That strikes me as pretty unlikely, but better safe than sorry when you’re dealing with a $2.5 billion chem lab on a planet a couple of hundred million kilometers away.

It may very well be something benign, but it’s certainly cause for concern, and the folks at JPL are looking into it. Stay tuned for more.

You can also read more about this at Universe Today and USA Today.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, Mars, rover

Comments (45)

  1. Menyambal

    It really looks like an insect wing, in one picture in the links. There’s a socket at one end, and it spreads and flows away from there, then tapers off. Which could be an earth-insect wing that got in the craft, somehow. Or it could be a Martian insect!

    What it also looks like is a conchoidal fracture. Some micrometeoroid hit the edge of something in the craft, and blew off a sliver. The impact is the socket, the pressure flowed from there, and a flake peeled off.

    Or it could be that it’s a flake of Martian mica, or some similar mineral, which was flaked off by an impact, and which was carried by the wind a long way.

    Or maybe it’s a Martian maple pod.

    Whatever it really is, we be can be sure that somebody is going to claim that there’s a coverup of its “real” nature.


  2. Peter Eldergill

    To me it looks kind of like a shrimp!


  3. McWaffle

    Can they shoot the laser at it to analyze its composition? Or is it too small a target or at the wrong angle or something? I guess they have limited laser blasts, but it might be worth considering just to make sure this isn’t a momentous find, right?

  4. Menyambal really shows it up close. You can see the impact/socket on the left, and that it appears to be clear.

  5. Sam Carter

    Its a chrysalis for a butterfly that got left behind when they evacuated the Planet.

  6. It’s probably not a martian insect, but it looks like it could be a martian insect, so I’m just going to go ahead and think it’s a martian insect for the time being. :)

  7. derp

    Dudes, it’s a toe nail clipping. Myth Busted.

  8. ian

    The socket looks distinctive, you’d think they’d know straightaway if it was part of the spacecraft. A weather sensor was damaged on landing, perhaps part of that? Doesn’t look organic, Earthly or Martian.

  9. Chris Winter

    My first thought: It could be some kind of mineral crystal. Calcite comes to mind.

  10. AliCali

    @5 (Nake Bunny with a Whip)

    “I hope NASA got Triple-A.”

    Plus I understand you have to be standing next to the vehicle with your card when they arrive. (Sheldon Cooper)

  11. James Evans

    After all the pre-launch talk about the rigorous, concerted effort to prevent contamination, if this turns out to be something silly along the lines of the atmosphere sniffer being filled with air from Florida the first time it was turned on, and everybody getting all excited about its initial readings, why, I’m gonna…be very disappointed again.

    And speaking of SAM, when the heck are they going to give it a go again? Ggggrrrrrrrrrrrr.

  12. How long until the kooks reconstruct the entire insect? Not long I suspect.

  13. Cindy

    When I first read the blog title, I immediately thought of a mashup of some of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons: “Rabbit of Seville” and the one with Marvin the Martian. Now I can’t get out of my head “Where’s the KABOOM, there’s supposed to be an Earth shattering KABOOM” coupled with the Barber of Seville music.

  14. Infinite123Lifer

    Its clearly a shard from the AllSpark. If Curiosity would only touch it we could have the best transformer ever! I wonder what Curiosity would transform its radioisotope thermoeclectric generator into since the AllSpark apparently provides a superior power source. I mean if Optimus Prime is a semi-truck . . . ahem, excuse me, carry on.

  15. Tim P.

    It kind of looks like an edge on view of a small empty plastic bag. They must be digging in an old landfill from a previous civilization. Their always talking about how long that plastic will take to degrade.

  16. AbsoluteZero

    Stephen Colbert just said “Either it’s the top of a giant metal city buried beneath the sand… or it’s a screw.” lol

  17. Wzrd1

    I’m honestly, based upon first blush opinion, is either simple calcite or something quite similar to a desert rose starting formation, to be sandblasted to microscopic scale eventually.
    Or, a small sliver of my cigarette wrapper tape fell free when I was opening a cigarette pack on Mars, admiring the new rover. As I’ve not yet been to Mars and I most certainly can’t smoke there in ambient conditions (let alone breathe), I’ll go with crystal growth of ambient minerals.
    Not introduced artifacts, as the range to landing makes that a bit improbable.

  18. Menyambal

    It occurs to me that it could be a naturally-grown crystal. If I saw that in a cave, I’d not think it too badly out of place.

    The “socket” could be where it started out hanging from a rock, with the width increasing , then decreasing as the solution it was growing in changed in strength and fell lower. I’d take a shot at growing one like it out of sugar.

    It somehow got out of the cave and blew away, I guess.

    Does the rover have a pocket to place really odd samples in, to save for when humans get there and look at them? Or maybe a better-camera-ed rover can land and look at them. I’d heard some mention of something like that for future rovers, I think.

  19. Menyambal

    Which is what Wzrd1 said. If he agrees with me, he must be right. ūüėČ

  20. Wzrd1

    Menyambal, I saw such in the desert during the military thing that is ongoing. Said mature and surviving crystals were BEYOND cool, hence the Desert Rose description.
    Considering my experience and the exhibit, I agree.
    To ME, it appears to be an eroded desert rose. Which begs rather interesting concepts, if geologists agree. :)
    If not, other interesting ideas. It *IS* a bit far from the landing site to be something recoverable, considering normal statistics…

  21. Menyambal

    Wzrd1, thanks for the Desert Rose. The pics I Googled are amazing.

    I’m guessing they assume that if it is of human origin, it just fell off the rover when an arm moved to a position that hadn’t been done yet. I thought they were doing something for the first time when they saw it.

    However, there were four or five sub-units of the spacecraft showering out of the sky, including the skycrane. There were also several weights jettisoned. There would be impact bits all over the place, and some of them would have conchoidal fractures. I guess I should look up how far the rover has travelled …

  22. JamesD

    At the right hand end, where it’s transparent (the rock beneath is visible at the top right corner) there are three (maybe four?) regular and equal stripes running parallel to the long axis of the object. I think it has to be a manufactured piece that has come off the Rover

  23. kevbo

    When in doubt, turn to the experts. What does Richard Hoagland say?

  24. Aaw, it’s probably plastic, but I can’t be the only who so wanted it to be a sea-shell.

  25. Thomas Siefert

    That’s the claw of a Gorn.

  26. Satan Claws

    Ha! I *knew* I had left my keys SOMEWHERE!

  27. Ian G

    Its a moth chrysalid!! Sure. The socket is the attachment point. The hole below this is where the moth came out and the markings halfway down are markings from the wing pattern. Assuming it’s not a Martian moth, it’s probably very dead by now!!

  28. Nigel Depledge

    @kevbo (23) –
    What’s the angle subtended between Curiosity’s descent trajectory and its path to this object? If that angle is a multiple of pi, root-5, root-2, e, the golden ratio (is that phi? I can’t remember) or any other number at all, then its definitely part of an alien city.

  29. UmTutSut

    Kinda looks like a badly rolled joint. Wonder what those Martians are smoking???

  30. Mike

    Curiosity has taken on a life of its own, so this can only be one thing.

    A rover turd.

  31. -jeffB

    Welcome to this month’s Mars Pareidolia Workshop…

  32. Mr. Anthony

    Wouldn’t it be crazy if it was a piece that fell from the sky crane after it flew away and crashed itself?

  33. alanborky

    Phil if that was found on earth I’d have no hesitation in assuming it was probably a husk shed by something like a termite.

    If hypothetically it was indeed a Martian equivalent of a termite husk is Curiosity sufficiently equipped to allow it to be identified as such?

    Commenters on here are right to suspect the pareidolia explanation but to then insist on it as the only possible explanation seems thoroughly unscientific to me as indeed’d insisting it constituted proof of life without more to go on.

  34. alanborky

    Rick H. “How long until the kooks reconstruct the entire insect?”

    You’ve just inadvertently dissed nearly every palaeontologist in history.

  35. Alex W.

    alanborky, I have one word for you: sandkings.

  36. Hank Roberts
  37. CatMom

    @ derp – Curiousity has toes?!?

    Actually, it’s the top of a buried Tommyknocker ship.

  38. The Mutt

    Haven’t there been at least a half-dozen probes that never made it to the surface? There could be bits of debris from those failed probes scattered all over the landscape.

  39. Gary Ansorge

    “Ah, NOW I know where I lost my spare Tardis key.”

    …or, it could be more like what this guy said…

    “22. Menyambal”

    GAry 7

  40. Hevach

    @39: While true that there could be debris spread over many miles, you’re still talking about a handful of probes on a very large planet. Mars might be smaller than Earth, but without surface water it’s about equal to our land area.

    Finding a piece of the sky crane or other discarded parts of the Curiosity would be brilliant luck. Finding a piece of one of the other probes would be six winning lottery tickets being hit by lightning while being eaten by sharks.

    The most likely events are that it’s either isn’t man made (in which case we’ll probably spend a lot of time figuring out that it’s something boring, but even that can be awesome when it’s on Mars) or came off the rover itself (which could be very worrying).

  41. @39. The Mutt :

    Haven’t there been at least a half-dozen probes that never made it to the surface? There could be bits of debris from those failed probes scattered all over the landscape.

    Mars may be a much smaller planet than Earth but it ain’t *that* small! ūüėČ

    The odds against finding wreckage from other spaceprobes that landed or crashed and didn’t land or were lost in The Black are exceedingly, ridiculously lo-oong indeed. :-(

    Mars is a small target and one’s that blew up in space such as the poor ole Mars Observer from 1992 almost certainly left fragments that continued on trajectories that didn’t or haven’t yet connected with the Martian surface let alone the Gale crater region of the red planet.

    Of course I could be – and would love to be found to be – wrong here! ūüėČ


    “”Few men realise the immensity of the vacancy in which the dust of the material universe swims.”
    – Page 7, ”The War of the Worlds”, H.G. Wells, first published 1898, this edition : Aerie books, 1987.

  42. Matt B.

    @30 UmTutSut – “Wonder what those Martians are smoking???”

    No, I don’t.

  43. Andrea P.

    Could it be a germ taken from the earth? In 1969 Apollo 12 Lunar Module landed approximately 160 meters from the Surveyor 3 spacecraft, a probe landend on the moon 2 years earlier. The crew retrieved several pieces of the Surveyor and scientists found a small amount of the bacteria Streptococcus mitis in a piece of foam from inside the TV camera. They believed that these bacteria had survived in this location since before launch.
    By the way, if you want to know more about Apollo 12 and the history of NASA missions I recommend you this app I’ve just found on android market. It’s called NASA Archives and contains more than 20 thousands amazing photos and descriptions about every NASA mission. This is the link , just try!

  44. Hevach

    There could very well be germs on Mars that we sent there, but this isn’t a germ, it’s a fairly large object (at least compared to a germ – it’s about 15 times as long as the largest known bacterium, and more like 2000 times as long as a typical large bacterium).

    The news feed about Curiosity dismissed it as plastic off the rover a couple days ago.


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