The scientists behind NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover mission on Mars on Tuesday explained the nature of a tiny, gleaming "flower" embedded in Red Planet rock, and revealed where they'll be using the SUV-sized robot's drill for the first time.
Both those developments point to the same happy discovery: The place where the rover is working was almost certainly formed through the action of water — and seems likely to provide new insights into the planet's geological history. "This is something that we've waited patiently for," Caltech geologist John Grotzinger, the mission's project scientist, told journalists during a NASA teleconference.
The "Martian flower" made a splash on the Internet, in part because it looked so different from the surrounding rock in a microscopic-scale picture from Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI.
Few people thought it was actually a flower, though it looked a bit like one. Was it a piece of plastic from the rover itself? An unusual type of mineral?
The Planetary Science Institute's R. Aileen Yingst, deputy principal investigator for the MAHLI team, delivered the expert verdict. It's a relatively large mineral grain, or "a pebble, if you wish," measuring about a tenth of an inch (2 millimeters) wide. "It could be a lot of things, but without some chemical information to back me up, I'd really hesitate to say what it is," she said.
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