A few days ago, NASA’s Opportunity rover, an impressive piece of machinery which has been exploring the surface of Mars for the last decade, made a surprising discovery. While photographing the area it had just traveled, it found a rock, about the size of a “jelly doughnut” as measured by the rover’s lead scientist Steve Squyres, on a patch of ground where it had not been seen earlier. The rover’s analysis of the rock revealed that it contained high amounts of sulfur and magnesium, a major surprise for unsuspecting scientists. The rock has created quite a stir in the space community, raising questions about its origins and its chemical composition. The discovery of this rock, and the attention it has raised, also powerfully demonstrates our current state of exploration, and where humanity is today in its efforts to explore the universe.

dnews-files-2014-01-mystery-mars-rock-670x440-140117-jpgThe “mystery” rock, seen in a photo of an area of ground where it had not been seen a few days earlier.

Though nobody is exactly sure why this rock suddenly appeared where it did, there are already a few theories trying to provide explanations. The most reasonable theory, put forward by the rover’s scientific team, is that a broken wheel on the rover kicked up and moved the rock as the rover was turning. The origin of this rock may not be figured out, but scientists will undoubtedly try to understand why the rock has so much sulfur and magnesium in it. Finding these answers will provide us with a greater understanding of the Martian environment, and might just change some of our currently held assumptions and theories. The discovery and analysis of this mysterious rock demonstrates the reason we explore: to seek out new knowledge, to pursue that knowledge for answers, and to use those answers for a greater understanding of our universe and ourselves within it. Squyres mirrored those sentiments while discussing the rock at a 10-year anniversary celebration for the Opportunity rover’s arrival at Mars, saying that its unexpected discovery shows how “there will always be something tantalizing, something wonderful just beyond our reach that we didn’t quite get to – and that’s the nature of exploration.”

1F443160394EFFCAEOP1110L0M1The Opportunity Rover’s mechanical arm studies and analyzes the “mystery” rock.

When you consider the events currently transpiring, you can start to realize and appreciate the current state of humanity’s exploration of the universe. A large mechanical rover, operating for over a decade on Mars after being launched into space from Earth and sent on a year-long interplanetary voyage, photographed the surface of this distant world and beamed the pictures back to scientists waiting here to analyze them. Differences in these photographs revealed a mysterious rock which suddenly appeared, and the rover’s sophisticated array of instruments and tools then analyzed the rock to discover its surprising and unexpected chemical composition. This narrative reads almost like a science fiction story, and in many ways humanity’s current exploratory efforts mirror the stuff of science fiction. We are beginning a major quest of exploration, using remarkably advanced machines to study, photograph, and analyze completely different worlds. The science that we are doing, and the exploratory accomplishments that we have achieved, are incredible. The thought of an automated car driving around on the surface of another world, making measurements of strange rocks and beaming them through space to scientists back on Earth, would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. Yet this is exactly what is happening today.

However, the discovery of this rock also reveals the other reality of humanity’s current exploration of the universe. All of this attention and buzz is over the discovery of a single rock which appeared in a photograph where it had not been seen earlier. This might not seem like a very significant discovery, and, in reality, it isn’t. While this is not to undermine the surprising nature of this rock and the insights its strange chemical composition might provide, there is significance in the fact that so much can be learned from so minor a thing. Because we have not yet begun to seriously study Mars in depth, most rocks we discover will provide us with startling insights and new knowledge. Our knowledge and experience of Mars is so limited right now that minor situations such as this are of great importance to us. A rock appearing in a photograph where it wasn’t seen before causes a buzz and is considered a mystery only because we have never experienced something like it before. This is the other reality of our current exploratory efforts: we have only just begun our exploration of the universe, and there is still much to be discovered. Even the remarkable fact that a mechanical rover on a distant planet provided us with this discovery shows how limited and primitive our exploration currently is: no human has ever stepped foot on Mars, or has ever looked at the Martian surface with their own eyes. No human has ever conducted the journey of scientific study, exploration, and discovery that the rovers are currently embarked on. Right now, we rely on our rovers, on our advanced mechanical tools to do our scientific work for us. One day, we will go there and do it ourselves. When it comes to exploration, the circumstances of the discovery of this rock show how far we still have to go, and how much more we will come to know.