Mystery white rock inexplicably appears near NASA Mars rover

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida Tue Jan 21, 2014 7:04pm EST

A NASA combination handout photograph shows the surface of Mars in front of the Mars rover on December 26, 2013 (L) and on January 8, 2014. REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters

A NASA combination handout photograph shows the surface of Mars in front of the Mars rover on December 26, 2013 (L) and on January 8, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/NASA/Handout via Reuters

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Scientists are stumped as to how a rock mysteriously appeared in images taken two weeks apart by NASA's Mars rover Opportunity.

The rover, which landed in an area known as Meridiani Planum a decade ago, is exploring the rim of a crater for signs of past water.

Another rover, Curiosity, touched down on the opposite side of the planet in 2012 for a more ambitious mission to look for past habitable environments.

For the moment, however, scientists are pondering a more immediate question. On January 8, while preparing to use its robotic arm for science investigation, Opportunity sent back a picture of its work area.

Oddly, it showed a bright white rock, about the size of a doughnut, where only barren bedrock had appeared in a picture taken two weeks earlier. Scientists suspect the rock was flipped over by one of the rover's wheels.

It also may have been deposited after a meteorite landed nearby.

Either way, the rock, dubbed "Pinnacle Island" is providing an unexpected science bonus.

"Much of the rock is bright-toned, nearly white," NASA said in a statement on Tuesday. "A portion is deep red in color. Pinnacle Island may have been flipped upside-down when a wheel dislodged it, providing an unusual circumstance for examining the underside of a Martian rock."

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Eric Walsh)

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