Last week, the Planetary Society's Red Rover Goes to Mars Student Scientists made planetary exploration history. They were the first members of the public to direct a camera aboard a spacecraft orbiting another world, the NASA Mars Global Surveyor (MGS). One of the pictures they targeted shows something new about the planet's surface -- a surprising cluster of dark-colored boulders smack dab in the middle of light-colored terrain. How the boulders got there and what geological history they represent on Mars are questions scientists still need to answer.
"It's puzzling," said Michael Carr of the US Geological Survey. "I looked at a few pictures around [the area] and couldn't find anything to explain it. Very puzzling! These are huge boulders. There are no indications of any outcrops that could shed such boulders."
"Wow! These have me totally stumped," commented Ron Greeley of Arizona State University. "Not only is the dark color of the boulders a surprise, but they appear totally out of context in the surrounding terrain. There is nothing in the rest of the image to suggest a source for such large boulders, nor their arrangement on the surface."
The Red Rover Goes to Mars Training Mission is comprised of an international team of nine students -- aged 10 - 16 years old. They gathered in Carlsbad, California during the week of February 11-17 to work at Malin Space Science Systems, which built and operates the camera on MGS, to select and image several sites on the Martian surface.
Michael Malin, of Malin Space Science Systems, remarked, "The location and nature of these boulders is unusual, but their shape and distribution -- in respect to the slope upon which they sit -- is consistent with a boulder shattered by weathering. The fall to their present location could also have broken the boulders apart. The mystery is why so much of the rest of the slope is smooth and devoid of blocks."
At Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, the team imaged three sites that coincided with the MGS spacecraft's orbital position during the week of their visit, as well as another site that the students deemed a candidate landing site for a possible sample return mission at some future date. That image will be taken when the MGS spacecraft's orbit takes it past the target area some time in the next five months. Michael Malin, Ken Edgett, and Becky Williams of Malin Space Science Systems personally supervised the Student Scientists.
While all three images of Mars taken last week by the Student Scientists are fascinating, one is particularly intriguing as much for its simplicity as for its implications. That view of fretted terrain includes the Nilosyrtis Mensae Valleys, sand dunes and the mysterious black boulders, which are clustered in the lower left hand portion of the image in a tight grouping.
The Student Team captioned the image on Malin Space Science Systems' website:
"This image was taken in the fretted terrain area located in the middle latitudes of Mars. Interesting features in this area are dunes, valleys, and mysterious black boulders that are as big as 15 to 25 meters (49 to 82 feet). The puzzling position of these mysterious rocks and the lack of our ability to understand how they got there reminds us how much there is still left to discover about our mystery planet."
The other two Student Scientist-directed images of Mars include a view of what may be alluvial fan material, with evidence of possible flowing water, and the layered terrain of the polar ice cap.
All of the images, including a close-up of the mystery boulders, can be accessed on The Planetary Society's website.
The Student Scientists were selected from over ten thousand entrants worldwide. The team includes four girls and five boys who hail from around the globe: Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland, Taiwan, and the United States. These young people were chosen from a field of 80 semi-finalists, who represented 16 nations. Forty-four nations participated in the contest.
LEGO is a principal sponsor of the Red Rover Goes to Mars project of the Society, which is being conducted in cooperation with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. LEGOLAND California also helped sponsor the Student Scientists' visit to the United States. No government funding is used for this educational project. Mars Global Surveyor is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
Reports about the Red Rover Goes to Mars Training Mission are available on The Planetary Society's website
The Red Rover Goes to Mars team members are Zsofia Bodo, 16, Hungary; Kimberly DeRose, 14, USA; Bernadett Gaal, 14, Hungary; Shaleen Harlalka, 15, India; Iuri Jasper, 12, Brazil; Hsin-Liu Kao, 11, Taiwan; Tanmay Khirwadkar, 13, India; Wojciech Lukasik, 10, Poland; and Vikas Sarangadhara, 10, India.