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A Perfectly Balanced Rock Seen by Perseverance

The Perseverance rover has begun exploring a region that looks a little like Monument Valley in Arizona and Utah in the US, or perhaps like a set on an old sci-fi movie. The rock formations in this area on Mars are stunning in their varied and sometimes absurd shapes and structures. One wonders what took place here eons ago to create the weird variety of formations.

While small, one feature catches the eye:  is a smaller rock that appears to be perfectly perched and balanced on top of a larger rock formation.

A closeup view of a rock that looks like it is balanced on top of a rock formation on Mars. The Perseverance rover acquired this image using its Right Mastcam-Z camera on its mast. This image was acquired on June 12, 2022 (Sol 466) at the local mean solar time of 12:20:39. You can see the full image here.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Knowing the history of that rock would certainly provide an interesting story, geologically speaking. What process or processes could bring a rock to be in such an unlikely position? Given the ruggedness of the area, its doubtful Perseverance could drive in for a closer look.

It’s very unlikely the rock was ‘dropped’ into its current location.  More probable is that the rock was part of the original bedrock formation and over millennia, wind erosion wore it down to its present shape. Wind is a powerful agent of erosion, and we know Mars is a windy planet. On the Red Planet, we can witness its power over time, and even today. Called aeolian processes, wind erosion is a powerful agent, especially in desert areas on Earth that area very similar to Mars.

“On Mars, where other processes such as fluvial [water] erosion, volcanism, and tectonism are slow, intermittent, or do not occur in the present era, aeolian activity is the most dynamic geologic process,” writes the team for the High Resolution Science Experiment camera (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has an entire section of images related to how wind has shaped the planet.

Given the high winds and the propensity for dust storms to occur on Mars, in all likelihood this “balancing rock” has been carved by wind and pelted by dust like a sandblaster, creating this feature from the underlying bedrock over millennia. Just like in Monument Valley on Earth, the simple wearing down of altering layers of soft and hard rock slowly revealed the natural wonders we see today.

However, Perseverance also found evidence of a little bit of “alien” intervention on the landscape. Take a look:

My team has spotted something unexpected: It’s a piece of a thermal blanket that they think may have come from my descent stage, the rocket-powered jet pack that set me down on landing day back in 2021. pic.twitter.com/O4rIaEABLu

— NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) June 15, 2022

The rover team says that shiny bit of foil is part of a thermal blanket – a material used to control temperatures. “It’s a surprise finding this here: My descent stage crashed about 2 km away. Did this piece land here after that, or was it blown here by the wind?” the team asked on Twitter. Here’s a closeup, showing the foil:

A piece of insulation, or thermal blanket from Perseverance’s landing back in 2021. Image via Twitter.

But this region is a treasure trove of unusual features, and it will be interesting to see how much Perseverance can study these features. Here’s another unusual “periscope-like” feature on top of another rock formation:

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image using its Left Mastcam-Z camera. Mastcam-Z is a pair of cameras located high on the rover’s mast. This image was acquired on June 13, 2022 (Sol 467) at the local mean solar time of 10:22:15. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

This photo was selected by public vote and featured as “Image of the Week” for Week 69 (June 5 – 11, 2022) of the Perseverance rover mission on Mars. NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image using its onboard Right Navigation Camera (Navcam). The camera is located high on the rover’s mast and aids in driving. This image was acquired on June 10, 2022 (Sol 464) at the local mean solar time of 15:45:06.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since this place looks so much like the Navajo Monument Valley, its fitting that the Perseverance team is using Navajo/Diné terms for naming the features the rover sees on Mars. Our friend Jason Major has a suggestion:

In all seriousness since NASA has adopted the practice of naming features Perseverance finds with Navajo/Diné terms, they should do that. (See https://t.co/symXqLCgpC) But, if they want to expand to other indigenous words may I suggest “Montaup,” Narragansett for “look out hill.”

— Jason Major (@JPMajor) June 13, 2022

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