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NASA rover spots 'whimsical' rock arch on Mars that's defying erosion

Curiosity spotted a tiny sculptural arch that resembles a cat or a lizard.

This small, textured arch is in the Gale Crater on Mars, as seen by NASA's Curiosity rover.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/Kevin M. Gill
This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

Sand worm. Fossilized alien head. Gecko. Cat riding a jet ski. A tiny rock arch on Mars is sparking the imaginations of space fans who are playfully naming objects it resembles. NASA's Curiosity rover got a good look at the weirdly textured rock formation that's resisting the forces of erosion on the red planet.

Curiosity is exploring the Gale Crater, home to an impressive mountain called Mount Sharp. The rover snapped some close-up views of the dainty, ragged arch last week, and citizen scientist Kevin Gill put the images together into a mosaic view. 

NASA planetary geologist Abigail Fraeman described the sight as "a particularly whimsical image of an interesting rock texture" in a rover mission update. "I continue to be dazzled by the textures we're seeing, especially the prevalence of centimeter-sized bumps and lumps poking out of the bedrock," Fraeman said.

The rover is currently checking out a transitional zone between the "clay-bearing unit" (an area rich in clay minerals) and the "sulfate-bearing unit" (gypsum and Epsom salts are examples of sulfates). Both areas hint at a potentially watery past in the region and are of interest to scientists investigating whether Mars might have once been habitable for microbial life.

The field of view for the arch images is only about 6.5 inches (16.5 centimeters), so that means the entire formation is quite small. According to planetary geologist Michelle Minitti, the delicate arch is likely made up of material that's resistant to erosion. The Gale Crater is a dusty and windy place and the rocky landscape shows the signs of this.

Martian geologist Gwénaël Caravaca commented on the arch on Twitter, saying it could be seen to resemble a snake, horns or a DNA strain.

Seeing familiar shapes in random objects is a favorite pastime of Mars fans, as followers of the rover's sibling vehicle Perseverance know well from a recent view of the humorously nicknamed "butt crack rock." 

Curiosity has been exploring Gale Crater since 2012. The arch shows there are still plenty of visual and geologic wonders for the veteran rover to uncover as it makes its way up the base of Mount Sharp.

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