In a case of beginner’s luck, a group of international
students, who won the chance to image Mars with a NASA
spacecraft camera, have stumbled upon a surprising cluster of
dark-colored boulders situated in the middle of light-colored

The students’ discovery has so far baffled veteran Mars
scientists. The mystery boulders, found in images captured by
NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, managed by NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., cover one of three
Martian sites targeted by the young scientists. How the
boulders got there and what geological history they represent
on Mars are questions scientists still need to answer.

“It’s puzzling,” said Michael Carr of the U.S. Geological
Survey. “I looked at a few pictures around [the area] and
couldn’t find anything to explain it. Very puzzling! These are
huge boulders. There are no indications of any outcrops that
could shed such boulders.”

“The location and nature of these boulders is unusual,
but their shape and distribution — in respect to the slope
upon which they sit — is consistent with a boulder shattered
by weathering. The fall to their present location could also
have broken the boulders apart. The mystery is why so much of
the rest of the slope is smooth and devoid of blocks,” said
Dr. Michael Malin, of Malin Space Science Systems, which
operates the Mars Orbiter Camera aboard the Global Surveyor

Images of the two other sites chosen by the students
revealed an equatorial Martian region with layers of sediment,
possibly deposited by flowing water, and layered terrain of a
Martian polar cap.

The students, all members of the Planetary Society’s
week-long Red Rover Goes to Mars Training Mission, range in
age from 10 to 16. Under the supervision of scientists at
Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, Calif., they studied
imaging data from Global Surveyor and selected interesting
areas that coincided with the spacecraft’s current orbital
position around the red planet. They also selected a
candidate landing site for a possible sample return mission,
to be imaged sometime in the next five months when Global
Surveyor’s orbit takes it past the target area.

“This kind of opportunity makes me wish I were a student
again,” said Michelle Viotti, lead for the Mars Public
Engagement Program at JPL. “For those who are still in
school, we hope to open up many more opportunities in the near
future for students to participate personally in the
exploration of Mars.”

Images of the students’ three sites, a close-up of the
mystery boulders and information on the students and their
training mission are available at . The
fledgling scientists were chosen through an essay contest from
more than 10,000 entrants worldwide. The four girls and five
boys represent Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland, Taiwan and the
United States.

The Planetary Society’s Red Rover Goes to Mars project is
conducted in cooperation with NASA and JPL. JPL manages NASA’s
Mars Global Surveyor mission for NASA’s Office of Space
Science, Washington, D.C., and Malin Space Science Systems
built and operates the Mars Orbiter Camera. JPL is a division
of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.