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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.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL