NASA's Curiosity rover has captured a tiny and rather unusual feature on the landscape of Mars. Scientists cannot explain yet what it is, although this finding could be a sign of trace fossils.
Researchers speculate that the features could be linked to minerals. They were discovered by the rover in a region so interesting that scientists from NASA want to send the Curiosity back to the same location for another look.
A Closer Look
"I'm checking out these stick-like figures," Curiosity Rover's Twitter account tweeted. "Maybe they're crystals? Or they could be minerals that filled spaces where crystals dissolved away. Stay tuned! Science continues."
The strange features, measuring only a few millimeters, have an appearance similar to tubes on a rock. At the moment, scientists are questioning whether their origin is biological or geological. There are also suggestions that the features could be trace fossils.
Trace fossils are the indirect proof of life that previously existed in a certain place at a certain point in time in the distant past. Footprints and holes are common examples of trace fossils.
"They look remarkably similar to Ordovician trace fossils I have studied and photographed here on Earth," said researcher Barry DiGregorio from the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology "If not trace fossils, what other geological explanations will NASA come up with?"
A close-up look at the strange features has enabled scientists to see that they are angular in multiple dimensions. The characteristic could indicate that they are linked to rock crystals, such as crystal molds that are also found on Earth. They are crystals in rocks that leave behind crystal molds after getting dissolved.
It is a challenge for scientists to immediately see the difference between a crystallization process and a biological one, so they have to study the features in detail in a lab to detect the presence of organics.
Meanwhile, the rover's Chemistry and Camera and its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer are making an inspection of the features to find out more clues about their origin and nature.
The Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet in 2012, and since then it has been on a mission to help NASA discover if Mars was ever habitable. It looks for clues to see if the environment of the planet could have once supported alien life, particularly microbes, even the tiniest ones.
Coming across strange features is not a novelty for the Curiosity because Mars is an extraterrestrial world, so there are absolute chances of spotting peculiarities. Just last month, the U.S. space agency shared an image of odd rock formations that had the appearance of cannonballs, referred to as blueberries by NASA scientists.