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Casey DreierJanuary 31, 2014

Conspiracy Theorist Sues NASA, Wastes Everybody's Time

The "jelly doughnut" rock found next to Opportunity is the focus of a new lawsuit

A lawsuit filed earlier this week alleges that NASA is ignoring clear evidence for alien life on Mars, claiming that the rock that recently appeared next to the Opportunity rover is not a rock at all, but some type of fungus.

The rock, described as a "jelly doughnut" due to its dark interior and light exterior, is the source of strong scientific and public interest. Scientists on the team are still debating how it got there, but the most accepted theory is that it popped out from under one of the rover's wheels during a drive. The rock appears to have been flipped upside down, exposing a surface not seen for potentially billions of years.

Opportunity sees a new rock on Mars
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Opportunity's science team maintains a strong interest in the rock and is continuing investigations, but that's not good enough for the Petitioner in this lawsuit.

The petitioner, who apparently hasn't bothered to follow the mission closely enough to understand that high-resolution images take time to download from Mars, that Opportunity's arm has limited movement due to her advanced age, and that scientists would be jumping for joy at the tiniest hint of biology on another planet, asserts the following as part of their lawsuit/rant:

"The refusal to take close up photos from various angles, the refusal to take microscopic images of the specimen, the refusal to release high resolution photos, is inexplicable, recklessly negligent, and bizarre. Any intelligent adult, adolescent, child, chimpanzee, monkey, dog, or rodent with even a modicum of curiosity, would approach, investigate and closely examine a bowl-shaped structure which appears just a few feet in front of them when 12 days earlier they hadn’t noticed it. But not NASA and its rover team who have refused to take even a single close up photo."

Taking aim into the world's tiniest barrel, I spent two seconds searching Google and found Opportunity's latest high-resolution pictures from the microscopic imager focusing on the new rock. You can read the full suit here, which is kind of fascinating in its own way, and a great example of how not to write about science or argue persuasively.

Unfortunately, since this is a real lawsuit, NASA was forced to engage its general counsel and has to actually spend time on this problem before it (likely) gets dismissed:

"This is an ongoing legal matter and we are limited in what we can discuss about the filing," said Bob Jacobs, NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications. "However, NASA has been publicly sharing our ongoing research into the rock dubbed 'Pinnacle Island' since we originally released the images from the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity earlier this month. The rock, which NASA is studying to better understand its chemical composition, also was widely discussed during a Jan. 22 NASA Television news conference. As we do with all our scientific research missions, NASA will continue to discuss any new data regarding the rock and other images and information as new data becomes available."

I'm glad to see that even after ten years of exploring Mars, Opportunity can still generate such intense public interest.

Read more: citizen science, Opportunity, mission status, Mars Exploration Rovers, spacecraft, Mars

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Casey Dreier

Director of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
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