Not to be outdone by the young upstart Perseverance, NASA’s Curiosity rover has spent recent days imaging interesting rocks at the base of Mount Sharp on Mars, near which the rover landed in August 2012. One of those features is an arch, similar to some of the towering geology present on parts of Earth—but this arch is only about 6.5 inches tall.
Raw images of the arch taken late last week were recently made available on Curiosity’s image portal. The structure is located in Mars’ Gale Crater, which is a nearly 4-billion-year-old meteor impact site that likely held water at some point in its ancient history, based on the clay and sulfate mineral deposits located in it.
At the Martian mountain’s base, Curiosity came across a formation unique enough to pique the interest of NASA scientists. They had the rover inspect the rock up close using the Chemistry and Camera tool, or ChemCam, which can image rocks and unpack their chemical composition, and its Mast Camera, which takes pictures of the terrain.
The rock arch sits unassumingly on the floor of Gale Crater. It’s prominent on the otherwise flat terrain around it and is a bit offset, with one side of the arch meeting the other slightly below its acme. It would look peculiar even on Earth. Commentators on social media said the formation looks like a cat on a jet ski or a serpent’s spine. If you look in the arch’s negative space, it appears a bit like a squashed map of Great Britain.
Whatever you see, the rock texture is a “particularly whimsical” example of the terrain in the area, Abigail Fraeman, a planetary geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote in a recent blog post.
Perseverance, the newer Martian rover, has upgraded instruments compared to Curiosity, but this rock is about as far from Perseverance as New York City is from Los Angeles, so our odds of seeing it in better detail are next to nothing. Years from now, though, NASA plans to send a spacecraft to bring Martian rocks to Earth. Perseverance will be collecting and storing caches of samples for eventual retrieval, one of the most ambitious science objectives to date in space. Those Martian rocks will be the farthest objects in the solar system to be retrieved by humankind.