He then zoomed in on soil near the rover that was compressed and disturbed by the retraction of the lander's impact-absorbing airbags. The soil shows an unusual cohesiveness that defies immediate explanation. It looks almost as if the grains making up the soil just below the surface are somehow stuck together like mud.
This image shows marks in the martian soil (upper right) made by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit's airbags during their final deflation and retraction. The picture was taken by the panoramic camera on the rover. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University
"Now we're going to pan over to the lower part of the mosaic and you'll see some scratch marks from where the airbags were retracted and there are places where rocks were actually dragged through the soil and the soil was kind of stripped up and folded in some places in very interesting and quite alien textures, in fact," Bell said. "They look very interesting to us and we're trying to figure out what it means for the physical properties of this material. I think trenching into this stuff is going to be an absolute blast once we get the rover down onto the surface."
Principal investigator Steve Squyres, also of Cornell, agreed and said "we're going to have a real interesting time trying to figure this stuff out."
"The way in which this surface has responded to the retraction, the dragging of airbags across this, is bizarre," he said. "I don't understand it, I don't know anybody on my team who understands it, but we're dying to get a closeup view of this spot."
Pressed by a reporter, he agreed "it looks like mud, but it can't be mud. I can't say much more about it than that at this point. It is very cohesive, it holds together well, it sort of looks like when you scrunch it, it folds up and that's not like most materials I can imagine being on Mars. I don't know what it is."
It can't be mud as they haven't detected any water in the top soil. BTW, you folks should keep an eye on that website as it has some very good reporting on Spirit... and if you're anything like me you're positively giddy and glued to watching this developing mission :) Other news outlets are picking it up:
The composite image revealed a mysterious substance right at the rover's feet, which scientists described as a "strangely cohesive" clay-like material with alien textures. Spirit exposed the material when it dragged its collapsed air bags across the Martian surface to retract them after its Saturday night bounce-down.
"The way the surface has responded is bizarre," said lead rover scientist Steve Squyres of Cornell University, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is managing the mission. "I don't understand it. I don't know anybody on my team who understands it. . . . It looks like mud, but it can't be mud."
The material was mashed and clumped, like something moist and viscous, and was broken away in pieces at some spots. Squyres said one of the Viking landers of the 1970s might have seen something like it elsewhere on Mars. One explanation, he speculated, might be that moisture had percolated from below the surface, leaving a residue of salt that acted as cement.
What if this was an ancient lake bed (Gustev crater is roughly the size of Connecticut) with an enormous underground reservoir of water? Maybe this would help in any future mission of terraforming mars? Whatever it is, I can't wait to see how this developes. I love new science and this is one of the best NASA science projects to come along in my life time. From all indications it is tremendously successfull at this point ... let's keep our fingers crossed and hope this continues.