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Life on Mars? Court filing demands NASA take closer look

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Deborah Netburn

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A combination photograph shows Mars on December 26, (left) and on January 8 (right) when  a doughnut-sized rock was first seen.

A combination photograph shows Mars on December 26, (left) and on January 8 (right) when a doughnut-sized rock was first seen.

The saga of the jelly doughnut-shaped rock on Mars has taken a strange turn - to a US federal court.

Rhawn Joseph, who describes himself as a neuroscientist and astrobiologist, filed court papers this week demanding that NASA do more to investigate the mysterious rock.

"NASA's rover team inexplicably failed to perform the basic demands of science, which is research, look again," he wrote in a petition for a writ of mandamus filed this week with the US District Court in San Francisco. "The refusal to release high resolution photos is inexplicable, recklessly negligent and bizarre."

An artist's impression of the NASA rover Opportunity on Mars.

An artist's impression of the NASA rover Opportunity on Mars.

He asks the judge to order NASA to closely photograph the rock from several angles, thoroughly examine it, and share that information with the public.

The rock is mysterious for a few reasons. It has a depressed, bright red centre and a white exterior (hence the comparisons to a jelly doughnut). More important, scientists working with the Opportunity rover have acknowledged that its chemical composition is unlike anything else they have seen on Mars - lots of sulphur, manganese, and magnesium.

But most puzzling is that it just showed up, seemingly out of nowhere. The rock appeared in an image taken 12 days after one  taken at the same location that did not show such a rock.

The principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, Steven Squyres, said he doesn't think the rock's appearance is especially exotic. He and his team have theorised that it may have been dislodged when Opportunity made what he called a pirouette just up the hill from where the rock showed up.

"It drove in such a fashion that it would drag the right front wheel kind of chattering across the ground, and we think that in that process, it kind of tiddlywinked the rock out of the ground and moved it into a location where we can see it," he said last week.

But  Mr Joseph has his own theories. In the court papers, he suggests that the rock may not be a rock at all, but rather a fungus-like organism. If so, that would mean Opportunity has discovered life on Mars.

In a January 17 post on the website Cosmology: Journal for the Advancement of Theoretical Science, Mr Joseph makes the case that the formation is "a fully grown bowl-shaped organism resembling Apothecia," which are "a mixture of fungus and cyanobacteria."

Mr Joseph is the author of several books, including Biological UFOs: Evidence for Extraterrestrial Extremophiles and Life in Space and Astrobiology: The Origin of Life and the Death of Darwinism.

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said that the agency was limited in what it could discuss about the filing since the legal matter is ongoing.

However, he said NASA had been publicly sharing its research on the rock and was studying it to better understand its chemical composition.

"As we do with all our scientific research missions, NASA will continue to discuss any new data regarding the rock and other images and information as new data becomes available," he said

Los Angeles Times