Shiny Fleck on Martian Surface! Why it Matters

The Mars rover digs in to work as a millimeter-size grain catches eyes

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A millimeter-size reflective fleck discovered by Curiosity in the Martian soil

OK, let’s all settle down. Nothing to see here, move on. That, alas, is the word from NASA after the newest pictures taken from the Curiosity rover on Mars showed, well, something in the soil — bright, millimeter-sized flecks that looked almost manufactured. They hadn’t come from the rover itself, so they must mean intelligent life!

Well, yes they do, but that intelligent life was in the form of scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, who quickly identified the grains as a natural byproduct of soil formation or perhaps the result of microscopic cleaving — a fracturing of the worn granules along natural fault lines that revealed a smooth, reflective interior. Last week, another mysterious bit of material discovered by the rover turned out to be a scrap of plastic shed by the spacecraft itself as it descended.

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The brief sensation created by the pictures was faintly reminiscent of the frenzy caused by the famous Martian face — a natural dune formation photographed by the Viking 1 lander in 1976 that did bear a striking resemblance to a human face staring up at the sky. Later spacecraft showed that much of the face had eroded away over time, but that didn’t stop a lot of frenzied speculation —and one execrably bad movie, Brian DePalma’s 2000 film Mission to Mars — from claiming there was more to it than that.

But there’s also something very good about how quickly the public and the media responded to the image of the shiny grains, since it’s a sign of how closely we’re all paying attention — a change from the ennui that often surrounds long-term space missions. And the news of the flecks happened to break at a very good time: late this week the rover  gathered and processed its first scoop of soil for analysis in its Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin), one of the principal tools in its large suite of instruments.

The CheMin gobbled two scoops  earlier in the mission, but they were used simply as handy abrasives to scrub away any Earthly contaminants from the instruments. The most recent sample — which was first sieved down to about the same amount of fine material as is in a baby aspirin — will get the full scientific going-over.

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“We are crossing a significant mission threshold by using CheMin on its first sample,” said Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger, in a NASA statement. “This instrument gives us a more definitive mineral-identifying method than ever used before on Mars.”

Curiosity will be doing a lot more scooping and sampling and sniffing and roving in the minimum two years it has ahead of it. The rover will wander freely throughout Gale Crater and even partway up the flank of Mount Sharp, the most prominent landmark in its landing zone — and there’s no telling what it will find there. There’s always a chance that the next big, sensational, heart-stopping find will turn out to be the real deal — and it’s that thrill of possible discovery that explains why we make such improbable journeys in the first place.