Opportunity rover finds intriguing new spherules at Cape York

Sep 14, 2012 by Paul Scott Anderson, Universe Today
Mosaic image of the spherules in the rock outcrop on Cape York at Endeavour crater. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Stuart Atkinson

One of the most interesting discoveries made so far by the Opportunity rover on Mars has been the small round spherules or "blueberries" as they are commonly referred to, covering the ground at the rover's landing site. Typically only a few millimetres across, some lie loose on the soil while others are imbedded in rock outcrops.

Analysis by indicates that they are most likely a type of concretion, which are also found on Earth. These Martian concretions have been found to contain the mineral hematite, which explains its detection in this region from orbit, and one of the main reasons that the rover was sent to this location in Meridiani Planum in the first place. They are similar to the Moqui Marbles, iron-oxide concretions in the outcrops of Navajo Sanstone in Utah, which formed in .

A portion of the rock outcrop. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Stuart Atkinson

Now, the rover (eight years later and still going!) has found what may be a different type of spherule. These ones generally resemble the previous ones, but are quite densely packed in an unusual rock outcrop that is on the eastern side of Cape York, the small island-like ledge on the rim of the huge Endeavour crater. With brittle-looking "fins" of material, the outcrop is an an area that from orbit has been identified as containing small clay deposits. There are also more substantial clay deposits farther south along 's rim at the much larger Cape Tribulation, the next major destination of Opportunity.

Whether this outcrop actually has any clay in it isn't known yet, but the examination of it by Opportunity continues at the time of this writing. Some spherules have apparently broken off the outcrop, exposing their inside structure. The new close-up images of the spherules were taken by the Microscopic Imager (MI) on the rover.

What makes these spherules of interest is the possibility that they may be connected somehow to the clay deposits. Their dense concentration in the outcrop and the physical nature of the outcrop itself may indicate a different origin than the other spherules seen previously, as well as the fact that no hematite signature has been seen from orbit in this specific area (although there may be smaller amounts of hematite here as well). We will just have to wait for the results of the rover's analysis to come back, but they should be interesting.

Opportunity is specifically looking for the clay deposits in this area, as they could have formed in non-acidic (or pH neutral) water as often happens on Earth. As we have seen in just the last few days though, the origin of Martian clays is itself still a subject of debate.

The whitish gypsum veins already seen at Cape York and examined by Opportunity also indicate the presence of liquid water at this location in the distant past. There are some interesting light-coloured veins in this same outcrop as well; whether they are also gypsum or something else isn't known yet.

Explore further: Buzzing with activity: Fruit flies orbit Earth for science

More information: Thanks also to Stuart Atkinson for his excellent mosaic images made from the original Opportunity photos.

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User comments : 11

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danlgarmstrong
1 / 5 (1) Sep 14, 2012
Eggs
GSwift7
not rated yet Sep 14, 2012
Eggs


God damn it, that's not all! Because if one of those things gets down here then that will be all! Then all this - this bullshit that you think is so important, you can just kiss all that goodbye!


It's hard to imagine how old those rocks must be. Here on earth the weathering keeps surface features new. It's hard to imagine how long it must have taken for the features in the color photo above to have formed on Mars.
yyz
1 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2012
baudrunner
1 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2012
They look like little gaseous bubbles, like what you see when boiling a high density liquid like syrup, or hot molten clay. Mars probably never had organic life originating there, and the surface seems much closer to hardened magma. We have to drill quite far into Earth's crust to get what you'd probably find on Mars' surface.
Shootist
4 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2012
They look like little gaseous bubbles, like what you see when boiling a high density liquid like syrup, or hot molten clay. Mars probably never had organic life originating there, and the surface seems much closer to hardened magma. We have to drill quite far into Earth's crust to get what you'd probably find on Mars' surface.


gaseous bubbles? hardened magma?

hematite. broken/shattered regolith.
dan42day
3.7 / 5 (6) Sep 14, 2012
Obviously the remains of an ancient gas turbine engine. The brittle fin-like structures indicate that the turbine had ceramic blades and the spheres are ball bearings from the main shaft. Hope they find the rest of the craft it came from!

Take that Curiosity!

What...? I've seen way crazier posts on this forum!
zaxxon451
1 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2012
yawn... enough with the rover status updates. wake me up when you find a fossil.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (4) Sep 15, 2012
I wonder what process could explain how the spherules "broke off" the outcropping. Looks almost like they popped creating a small crater-like phenomenon.

"What makes these spherules of interest is the possibility that they may be connected somehow to the clay deposits. Their dense concentration in the outcrop and the physical nature of the outcrop itself may indicate a different origin than the other spherules seen previously,"

There is a process that can easily explain both the spherules and cratering, but nobody here wants to hear about the effects of electric discharge on geology.
MIBO
1 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2012
have to say that even the ones found on earth the origin is unknown, my first thought was also eggs.
Since fossils are not the remnants of old creatures but rather where the bones etc have been replaced by minerals, and mars seems to be very rich in Iron, isn't it possible that some process caused Iron compunds to be deposited.
normally fish eggs would decay before that could happen, but if there was a volcanic eruption then the resulting ash layer would keep out the oxygen and prevent this happening. And they are all found where water was believed to exist.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (3) Sep 15, 2012
A couple of items stick out in the image that supports the EDM POV. Fisrt when you look closely, there are several rows of spherules, connected by a ridge between each individual spherule. Also, the row of "broken off" spherules through the middle of the image have what resemble small craters, the large one in the middle looks a lot like the larger formation of Mt. Sharp, a couple of the other small craters have a central peak, like so many other craters throughout the solar system. The vein of light colored material could be the signature of the lichtenburg figure left behind by the electric discharge that caused the odd rocks.
Nyloc
not rated yet Sep 19, 2012
I'm not the first person to speculate that these 'blueberries' may be the remnants of a Martial lifeform. Before you start arguing that they're not, using earth life as a comparison, I remind you that Mars is not Earth. We have no reason to expect to find Earth life on Mars, but remain hopeful that we may find evidence of martian life.

Our best option is to keep open-minded about this prospect. We shouldn't be too hasty at ruling out the possibility that the spherules are remnants of an unknown lifeform. That said, there is still no proof that they are, either. Lets hope that experiments undertaken by Curiosity are 'fruitful'.