America's favorite $2.5 billion interplanetary science project stopped in its tracks recently when it discovered a strange, bright, shiny object nestled in the Martian soil. That science project, of course, is the Mars Curiosity rover which is now a few days into its survey of Martian soil.
The plan was pretty simple: Plunge Curiosity's 1.8-inch wide on-board scooper into the "sand and powdery material," analyze it, find evidence of life on Mars, tweet about it, come home. We're sort of simplifying the rover's mission here, but you get the drift. It was all going swimmingly earlier this week, when something unexpected happened on the rover's very first scoop. A shiny thing appeared.
Having spotted an unexpected foreign object, the Curiosity Rover stopped in its tracks, cancelled all processes and turned to mission control for help. That was on Sunday night. What happened next happened at a characteristically glacial pace for NASA's big mission. No, seriously. America's brightest scientists labored over the little fleck of metal for days. and seems to have enlisted each and every one of the Curiosity's sophisticated scientific instrument, including the whimsically named "ChemCam." Have a look to the right.
You can see the shard resting on top of those weirdly round Martian pebbles. What is it? Don't know, said NASA at first. Is it a piece of shiny Martian metal? Unlikely. Did it come from a space ship? That makes more sense. Is it alien? It would appear so. Uhh, did we drop a piece of Earthling trash? Now we're getting somewhere.
After no less than 48 hours of investigation, the Curiosity team explained their still inconclusive findings in a press release. "The rover team's assessment is that the bright object is something from the rover, not Martian material," it read. "It appears to be a shred of plastic material, likely benign, but it has not been definitively identified." In other words, anything can happen on Mars and while NASA's crew of geniuses is pretty sure they just littered, anything is possible.
The good news is that Curiosity is finally back to work. On Wednesday, it commenced its scooping operation which, for now, is not actually designed to tell us anything about Mars but rather clean the little bits of Earth that are caked to the rover's equipment so that it can analyze the Martian soil properly. (Turns out that was a pretty good idea.) NASA is scheduled to give a press conference on Thursday to divulge the nitty, gritty details. In the meantime, follow the Curiosity Rover on Twitter. It's actually kind of sassy.