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article imageOp-Ed: Shiny rocks on Mars surprise just about everyone

By Paul Wallis     Dec 1, 2018 in Science
Washington - What’s shiny, and sits around on the surface on Mars? Nobody’s too sure, but the stampede of theories is thundering through the sciences. Pictures could be anything from another shiny meteorite to odd fragmented shapes meaning something quite else.
The shiny rocks would be pretty straightforward to categorize on Earth, They’d be pretty easy to classify, and theories would be based on solid facts. Point being, this isn’t Earth, and understanding of Martian mineralization, let alone whatever’s dropped in from space, is in its very early stages. There’s not just one of these new shiny rocks, there’s quite a few similar looking objects, and there are many oddly shaped bits and pieces lying around, too.
Mars is like a cryptic crossword for geologists and mineralogists. Both sciences have been quick to get the message that what happens on Mars can be very different from Earth. In one of the pictures of the shiny rock, there’s a nicely rounded rock right next to it, with a fractured shear at right angles to the rounded side, for example. Interpretation? “Could be anything” is the only working theory, in some cases.
(Before we go any further: I’m not a geologist. I have seen a lot of materials, however, which look very like some of these images, and it’s absurdly hard not to speculate on what they might be. So bear with me while I try to explain what’s so interesting about this shiny rock.)
The “shiny rock” (nice to have a few stern, no-nonsense scientific definitions available) looks like a partly melted rock or “ingot”. That’s great for the meteor theory, but other similar colored shapes and similar looking things look nothing like that rounded form. The shiny rock also doesn’t seem covered in the ubiquitous Martian dust like everything else, but there’s no obvious indication that it’s a recent arrival. That might be significant, because Martian dust is so fine it gets in to every possible crevice on any surface. The mishmash of bits and pieces of gravel doesn’t help make the usual associations about what belongs where any easier, either.
Looking at the pictures, there are possible similarities with light crystalline structures of a range of metals. Some metals and other materials on Earth look very thin, crumbly and wafer-like in a refined state, for instance. They form droplets in other cases. Does Mars have some method of forming and accumulating deposits of minerals which is like alluvial mining on Earth and bringing bits to the surface? There’s only one way to find out.
The Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA s Mars rover Curiosity showed researchers interesting internal col...
The Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity showed researchers interesting internal color in this rock called "Sutton_Inlier," which was broken by the rover driving over it. The Mastcam took this image during the 174th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars (Jan. 31, 2013).
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/ASU
To give some idea of the complexities of getting the shiny rock right - It’s not unknown for ore bodies to have visible surface outcrops on Earth. A few bits of gold lying around on the surface, for example, would possibly point to a vein. What if Mars has some sort of mineralization process which does the same thing with lighter metals? See the picture of a Martian rock with a shiny side exposed, very unlike the usual reddened surface rocks. Note the smooth, dust-free, surface on the exposed side. Interesting, isn’t it?
Even as a meteor, the little rock and fragments are a bit unusual, like they’ve splashed in molten droplets, for some reason, without impact evidence, rather than the usual crater/fragments embedded mess. (The dust may have long since filled in any evidence of impacts, too, just to add a few extra possible dimensions to analyses.)
Martian meteors which have been ejected from Mars and arrived on Earth are plentiful, and even available for sale, they’re so numerous. The thing being, they don’t look much like this rock, either. They tend to look like the more common Martian materials. If this class of material isn’t common ejecta from Mars, it may be heavier, too, non-eject-able. There’s nothing quite like endless speculation to drag you in to new areas of logic, is there?
This little rock may be anything, but it’s just made the point that Mars is a great place for doing fascinating science and much more in practical terms. The irony and joy of this little shiny rock is that it underpins so very efficiently the real value of the Mars missions. When people finally get to Mars, knowing what’s there, and what’s where, will be critical in using local resources. Local minerals, in particular, could be very handy, reducing the demand for shipments from Earth. You may be looking at a future major asset, or a future major contention about Mars. One thing for sure – You can expect duelling theses at ten paces on a lot of Mars geology and minerology for centuries to come.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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