Don't panic! Aliens aren't throwing rocks at Mars rover, NASA says

NASA explains mysterious appearance of Martian rock in front of robotic rover

No need to panic. NASA Tuesday offered a reasonable explanation for the mysterious appearance of a rock in a photo of the Mars rover Opportunity.

Before-and-after images - taken 13 days apart -- of the same spot on the Martian surface first show an empty space, and then the arrival of a bright rock. The images prompted headlines speculating how the mysterious rock, about the size of a doughnut, suddenly appeared in Opportunity's sights.

Murray Ridge rock
NASA scientists are dispelling rumors about a rock that seemed to mysteriously appear in front of the Mars rover Opportunity. (Image: NASA)

No big mystery, actually.

NASA today said that the robotic rover itself most likely knocked the rock into the scene.

"The rover had completed a short drive just before taking the second image, and one of its wheels likely knocked the rock -- dubbed 'Pinnacle Island' -- to this position," the space agency noted on its website. 'Pinnacle Island' may have been flipped upside down when a wheel dislodged it, providing an unusual circumstance for examining the underside of a Martian rock."

The first image was taken on Dec. 26 and the second on Jan. 8.

While much of the rock is light colored or nearly white, part of it is deep red. Scientists figure the lighter part of the rock had been beneath the Martian soil.

The discovery provides NASA researchers with a chance to examine the underside of a Martian rock. Opportunity and its robotic twin Spirit were launched from earth in the summer of 2003 with scientists looking for them to explore the Martian surface for three months.

Spirit sent more than 128,000 images of Mars back to Earth before it became stuck in soft sand and was finally abandoned in 2010.

Opportunity is still going strong after 10 long, grueling years on Mars.

For the last year and a half, Opportunity has been joined by NASA Mars rover Curiosity in the exploration of Mars' geology and the hunt for evidence that there is or ever was life on the Red Planet.

NASA hopes to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. But first, the space agency plans to send another rover and more orbiters to lead the way.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon