Curiosity and the Martian Flower


Mars Curiosity has spotted an odd little feature in a nearby Martian rock. Shown above, at first glance any red-blooded skeptic would assume that’s a piece of the EDL package. But NASA scientists aren’t sure. For now it’s been dubbed the Flower:

Discovery News — So what could it be? The high-resolution MAHLI camera is intended to snap close-up observations of Mars surface features — acting like hand lens magnifiers used by geologists in the field. Therefore, the object — that, as noted by Boyle, is shaped like a tiny ‘flower’ — is pretty small.

Naturally, the ever-optimistic and irrational part of my brain wants this to be evidence of some kind of Mars fossil, but in all likelihood, it’s a concentration of minerals embedded in the rock. The former may sound more exciting, but the latter is the most likely explanation.

A number of sites are quoting a claim on that this is the second translucent object Curiosity has found in Gale Crater, cue the conspiracy music. That’s technically true, it’s just the other one was a small hunk of Curiosity’s EDL platform that sat the plucky little rover down in elegant, daring do fashion last summer. Or at least that’s what you’re supposed to believe

When a crystal is large and conspicuous it’s called a phenocryst. Best guess, outside of a piece of the probe itself, is that’s what we have here. Quartz is probably the crystal most familiar to weekend explorers here on earth, but crystals of salt, calcite and iron pyrite or fool’s gold probably also adorn your local rock hound’s mantle (And of course diamonds are a green Martian babe’s best friend). Any of those would be very exciting on Mars, especially a big hunk of “sea” salt. That would be a rock-solid sign, pun  intended, that the landscape Curiosity is exploring was once under a long vanished sea on an ancient, wetter and far more earth-like Mars.

A lone Martian crystal embedded in sedimentary or metamorphosed sedimentary rock would bring up some interesting geology. On earth, crystals turn up in all kinds of places, either washed in and stuck in a fruit-cake matrix with other material cemented together by time and pressure, or forming as a result of rocks cooling after being subjected to great heat deep below the surface. Between air, water and tectonic activity, there is plenty of opportunity for crystalline minerals to form, be transported and/or mixed with other rocks, cooked and crushed, and exposed on the earth’s surface. It’s not surprising we see them everywhere.

But Mars has been mostly geologically dead for eons compared to earth, or at least that’s what we think. It’s certainly possible this is a relic of geology gone by or perhaps something more recent; we know so little about the planet. Another idea is the flower is a piece molten ejecta that was thrown up by an impact. There’s no shortage of impact sites on Mars to back that hypothesis up, and Curiosity is after all sitting inside Gale Crater.

Update: A reader below offered another interesting possibility, “It looks similar in size and shape to the other larger grains in that picture but, well, clean. I wonder if it’s possible the instrument or some part of the rover whacked that spot and broke off the tip so now we’re just seeing the unweathered part of the mineral.” 

The rover has the sophisticated tools needed to find out a lot more about this object if it proves to be native. Curiosity is basically a remotely controlled field geologist with all the latest gizmos, even a laser to analyze samples several feet away. Figuring out what the flower is and unraveling how it might end up on the surface of Mars might be a fascinating project for a veteran mission planner or a great thesis for any budding young grad student alike. But for now it’s unclear if NASA will task the rover to take a closer look.


  1. says

    Let’s just wait for and the guy with the amazing photographic technique to tell us what is, I should probably check there now before clicking on ‘submit comment’.

  2. Crudely Wrott says

    In light of the copious evidence for water based mineralogy revealed by Spirit, Opportunity and now Curiosity, not to neglect Sojourner and the Vikings and various orbiting science satellites, this is not a piece of plastic.

    The specimen is obviously embedded in the Martian terrain which indicates that it’s not only been there for a long time but is on a slope of sufficient angle that, had it been dropped from Curiosity, would have most probably not snagged in the position shown. In addition the photo contains another interesting feature, just to the upper left of the “flower” that shows similar reflective properties if not color.

    This tiny bit of geology is probably not evidence for any particular interpretation except for giving evidence that we are just now getting a finger on the handle of Martian history. I would hope that we see more examination of this particular specimen and that Curiosity’s handlers keep a sharp eye out for more specimens that exhibit similar characteristics. Something tells me that they already are.

  3. says

    Funny Steve, funny.

    I’d bet on something like a hunk of calcite or whatever its Martian equivalent is. But don’t discount the possibility of ejecta. During late heavy bombardment, when Jupiter and Saturn may have done their massive two-step and carpet bombed the entire inner solar system, Mars would have been in prime position to receive its share.

  4. says

    You know what it looks like to me? A clean, broken face of a phenocryst. It looks similar in size and shape to the other larger grains in that picture but, well, clean. I wonder if it’s possible the instrument or some part of the rover whacked that spot and broke off the tip so now we’re just seeing the unweathered part of the mineral.


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