Microscopic photographs of a Mars rock taken by NASA's Opportunity rover have triggered excitement among scientists but they are keeping speculation about their findings to themselves for the time being, a mission official said.
The images, posted on Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars rovers Web site, show a highly detailed surface on a rock dubbed "El Capitan" that has been undergoing examination by the robot geologist.
"They are just very beautiful things and it's not at all clear that we understand what we're looking at," mission official Rob Manning said in a teleconference with reporters on Monday, report &to=http://www.mercurynews.com' target=_blank>MercuryNews
The rover has yet to climb out of the small crater onto the flat Meridiani Planum to examine a large deposit of what may be water-formed hematite.
The science team planned to command the rover to use a rock scraping tool to clear away dust so that its spectrometers can get clearer readings of El Capitan, which lies in an outcrop of bedrock that scientists believe holds the key to the planet's past.
"There are high expectations that we will understand the extent to which the outcrop has been modified chemically and whether water was involved," Ray Arvidson, deputy principal investigator, said.
Arvidson said scientists are working on competing theories about how the fine layers in the 3 foot-high outcrop were formed, and hoped to have preliminary findings within days.
"One idea is that it's associated with ash fall or simply windblown material that was compacted," he said. "Or it's associated with (sedimentation in) an old lake or shallow sea. The hope is in the end you have the information to show how they were formed and modified," informs &to=http://www.reuters.com' target=_blank>Reuters.com