Space

NASA Rover Spots Unreal Mars 'Flower' Formation

There are no coral reefs or fossilized flowers on Mars, but there's a lookalike.

These tiny mineral formations give us a close-up look at the details of the surface of Mars as seen by NASA's Curiosity rover.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

Hello, beautiful! NASA's Curiosity rover snapped a gorgeous, delicate formation on Mars that looks like it could be a branching piece of ocean coral. It's not coral, but it's worth contemplating how we see familiar Earth objects in random shapes on Mars.

The miniscule Martian sculpture invites poetic comparisons. It resembles a water droplet captured at the moment of explosion against a surface, or the tendrils of an anemone in a tide pool.

Kevin Gill, famous for processing NASA space images, brought my attention to the lovely Curiosity images with a tweet on Friday describing the formation as a "Martian flower."

The image comes from Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager (Mahli) instrument, which NASA describes as "the rover's version of the magnifying hand lens that geologists usually carry with them into the field." So the formation in the image is quite small.  

Abigail Fraeman, a deputy project scientist for Curiosity, tweeted a helpful visual guide that compares the object with a US penny to give an approximate sense of the scale.

Fraeman writes that the image "shows teeny, tiny delicate structures that formed by mineral precipitating from water." 

Curiosity has been in residence in the Gale Crater on Mars since 2012. It's working its way up the crater's central mountain Mount Sharp, delivering selfies and insights into the red planet's geology, history and atmosphere as it goes. 

The tiny mineral formation is a reminder of Mars' once-watery past, a key area of study that could help scientists figure out if the now inhospitable planet was once capable of hosting microbial life. It was nice of Curiosity to stop and smell the "flower" for us.