Guest post: a teser on Mars

September 19, 2012 • 3:42 am

Alert reader Sigmund spotted a puzzling new finding by an older Mars rover, and I asked him to report it to the readers. His guest post follows:


Opportunity discovers puzzling concentration of spheres on Martian surface.

by Sigmund

While recent focus on Mars-related robotics has focused on the Curiosity rover, it is easy to forget that one of the previous generations of rovers still trundles across the Martian plains. Even now, eight and half years after its landing, the ‘Opportunity’ rover is still producing the scientific goods. In that time is has traveled over 34 kilometers, exploring various ancient impact craters, finding several meteorites along its path and making significant scientific discoveries such as the presence of the mineral gypsum. These findings strengthen the theory that Mars, in its distant past, was a much warmer and wetter place.

Just this week NASA reports a new and exciting discovery made by Opportunity. The rover, now located at the rim of the 22 kilometer diameter Endeavour crater, has photographed a puzzling geological phenomenon. The picture below is a composite of 4 photographs taken by Opportunity’s microscopic imager and shows a dense collection of spheres, each approximately 3 millimeters in diameter.

According to NASA:

“This is one of the most extraordinary pictures from the whole mission,” said Opportunity’s principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “Kirkwood is chock full of a dense accumulation of these small spherical objects. Of course, we immediately thought of the blueberries, but this is something different. We never have seen such a dense accumulation of spherules in a rock outcrop on Mars.”

The term ‘blueberries’ refers to an earlier finding by Opportunity, the discovery, close to its landing site, of spherical nodules rich in the iron bearing mineral hematite. Unlike the solid ‘blueberry’ nodules, those found at the current site, named Kirkwood, are less uniform.

“They seem to be crunchy on the outside, and softer in the middle,” Squyres said. “They are different in concentration. They are different in structure. They are different in composition. They are different in distribution. So, we have a wonderful geological puzzle in front of us. We have multiple working hypotheses, and we have no favorite hypothesis at this time. It’s going to take a while to work this out, so the thing to do now is keep an open mind and let the rocks do the talking.”

Crunchy on the outside? Softer in the middle?

Are NASA hinting that we may have the first discovery of Martian candy?

Most curiously, the current phenomenon appears strikingly similar to a bowl of Maltesers*.

But wait…according to Wikipedia:

“Maltesers are a confectionery product manufactured by Mars, Incorporated.”



JAC note: Maltesers are sold in the UK and Canada, but aren’t found in the U.S. Here we have a variety of similar confections (all of which I love), collectively known as “malted milk balls.” One example is the Hershey product Whoppers.

27 thoughts on “Guest post: a teser on Mars

    1. Yes, but when the malteser is exposed to water the crunchy interior tends to dissolve quicker than the outer chocolate coating.
      I rest my case!

  1. My Mum used to work on the switchboard at a company that had been bought up by the Mars company. One day some visitors from head office came along, so one of her colleagues was able to announce over the tannoy:

    “The men from Mars have arrived”.

  2. For some reason I find the sensation of biting into a malted milk ball unpleasant. To me it somehow feels like my teeth are being pulverized.

  3. So is this a sign of ancient Martian life?

    And why is NASA so paranoid about admitting to such? Curiousity has gone from a life finding rover to one that is looking for “signs” of organics.

    Grow a pair, NASA.

    1. This isn’t Curiosity, it is the Opportunity Rover. As for finding ‘life’ on Mars, I suspect that the greatest hope for astrobiologists is not detecting existing life (especially considering that Mars has been dry and cold for billions of years) but in detecting fossils of life forms (or geochemical signatures of such life) that might have existed in the brief window (which could have been hundreds of millions of years) when Mars had liquid water.

      1. Oh, I wouldn’t give up on the hope for actual life on Mars just yet.

        We’ve got extremophiles here on Earth that’d survive. Assuming life on Mars made it to the protist level of sophistication before the planet’s ecosystem went tits-up, it’s entirely reasonable to think that there could be not-thriving survivors.

        And there’s also the possibility of interplanetary hitchhikers on meteorite ejecta. That’ll be the truly fascinating question if we ever actually do find life on Mars: do we share a common ancestor?


  4. The tiny spheres look very similar to terrestrial iron oxide concretions such as Utah’s “Moqui Marbles”:

    The August 2012 issue of GEOLOGY (a Geological Society of America journal) has an article about the Utah concretions and their resemblance to the Martian objects. The article isn’t available online except for GSA members, but if you have access to an institution that still gets geology journals, they should have it.

    Similar concretions are found in parts of the Oligocene “Badlands” on the High Plains (I’ve seen them at Pawnee Buttes and Natural Fort, Colorado). Iron oxide and Fe-Mn concretions are sometimes found in the soil in humid climates (mine are from the tops of roadcuts in several Kentucky Paleozoic limestones).

    The concretions can be thin shells with sandstone or powdered iron oxide inside, or heavy, thick-walled balls with only a tiny empty hole in the middle.

    It’s been known for several years that bacteria are involved in precipitating certain types of iron and manganese nodules, as well as related precipitates such as desert varnish and at least some rust on steel. THAT’S why the Mars spheres have sparked so much interest. But hematite is also capable of forming spheres that are completely inorganic, either as ball-like clusters of tiny radiating metallic crystals (botryoidal hematite or “kidney ore”), or as concentrically-layered red ochre spheres. Here are some tiny hematite spheres (less than .5mm) photographed inside an amethyst crystal:

    Maltesers are far superior to Whoppers. Maltesers have better chocolate, a more delicate center, and lack the horrid wax-coated-sand texture of Whoppers.

      1. It will be interesting to see more detailed analyses. There are so many types of little stone spheres that it will take more information to decipher the Martian photos – and the stones may have no exact terrestrial counterpart. On earth we have several minerals that form spherical aggregates of crystals, as well as microcrystalline silica spheres (geodes, concretions), clay concretions and certain clay-rich soils, volcanic lapilli (such as the “volcanic hailstones” at Chiricahua National Park), etc.

      2. The instrument they are using does not have the resolution to analyze a single concretion. What they are doing right now is mucking around for a field with no concretions in it, but with the same matrix. They can take the measurements from that, and “net out” the contributions from the concretions.

    1. That’s what I thought when I saw the picture – that they look just like Moqui marbles. I see them quite a bit in the Zion NP backcountry. There are patches around where they completely cover the ground. They’re pretty cool.

  5. I think they look more chocolate chip-ish than blueberry. And crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle reminds me of a tootsie roll pop. Maybe Mars is full of rabbit confectioners.

    1. I hope that’s not a comparison from knowledge.
      On the other hand … having run a number of domestic stills over the years (before I moved to Scotland) … actually I think I know approximately where you’re coming from, because those “tops” certainly do have a lot of aggressive organics in there.

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