NASA sleuths solve 'jelly doughnut' mystery

Where did the jelly doughnut come from?

March 12, 2014

6-jellydoughnut.jpg

Where did the jelly doughnut come from?

It was obvious it wasn’t from a local bakery. But the question did perplex NASA scientists who first saw the doughnut, courtesy of the Mars Explorer rover Opportunity on Jan. 8.

The 1.5-inch wide, white-rimmed, red-centered rock that resembled a piece of pastry seemingly appeared out of nowhere, but a month later NASA officials said that the doughnut was really a rock fragment dislodged by the rover’s passing.

Gizmag.com reported the doughnut, also known as Pinnacle Island, showed up in an image sent by Opportunity where nothing was present four days earlier. It looked a little as if fungus has suddenly grown from the Martian soil and prompted a lawsuit by a science writer who claimed the rock was a living organism that NASA refused to investigate properly.

Popular Science reported that writer Rhawn Joseph didn’t believe the rock theory, and said his examination found “the same structure in miniature was clearly visible upon magnification and appears to have just germinated from spores.”

6-Opportunity.jpgHowever, NASA officials stand by their theory that the doughnut is a fragment of a rock that one of Opportunity's wheels struck, which then broke off and rolled downhill.

"Once we moved Opportunity a short distance, after inspecting Pinnacle Island, we could see directly uphill an overturned rock that has the same unusual appearance," says Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson. "We drove over it. We can see the track. That's where Pinnacle Island came from."

However, scientists said the rock contained high levels of water-soluble manganese and sulfur, indicating a wetter environment in the ancient past. "This may have happened just beneath the surface relatively recently," Arvidson says. "Or it may have happened deeper below ground longer ago and then, by serendipity, erosion stripped away material above it and made it accessible to our wheels."

Opportunity is now studying an exposed section of rock near the McClure-Beverlin Escarpment; it is named in honor of engineers Jack Beverlin and Bill McClure, who saved the Mariner 6 Mars probe from destruction on liftoff on Feb. 14, 1969.