Six weird things we found on Mars
Sunday, April 13, 2014, 5:00 PM -
With NASA's ongoing Mars odyssey, mankind has pushed back the boundaries of space exploration like never before.
And even so, it's always the really weird stories that grab the public's attention, like the news last week of the mysterious light spotted in the skies over the red planet:
It was one of the most popular things on our website, prompting us to pen this gem about other times people have looked into the cosmos and seen weird things.
But when it comes to weird and/or silly space sightings, the well is pretty much bottomless, so without further ado, here are six MORE stupendous sightings on Mars.
Okay, so: When you see that shiny, metallic-looking protrusion out of the rock just down there, what does it look like to you?
When NASA released this image in early 2013, they reckoned it looked a bit like a hood ornament, which we find odd: Was that really the most outlandish tongue-in-cheek explanation we could get from the guys whose one job is space exploration?
We, for example, are sure it’s the finger of a robot. Perhaps it was the servitor of some long forgotten Martian civilization, doomed to wander the wastes for eons after its masters abandoned it until it finally ran out of juice.
Or it could just be a shiny rock – which is NASA’s official and frustratingly scientific explanation.
Basically, it’s “ventifaction” in action. That’s the official science term for erosion of rocks by wind and fine grains of sand, of which there are no shortage in the Martian atmosphere.
But different types of rocks erode differently, and the “robot finger” is probably made of rock that is harder than the surrounding rock, allowing it to endure beneath that ventifaction.
As for the shininess, NASA says the rock probably has a very hard and fine grain, easily polished by that same process … and they know because they’ve seen similar processes in Antarctica, outlined in a handy-dandy PDF released by the agency.
So not a futuristic android then. Pity.
From Androids … to bigfoot.
At least, that’s what the usual crowd thought of this oddly-shaped rock spotted in 2008 by NASA’s Spirit Rover, one of Curiosity’s precursors.
Of course, if you see Sasquatch on Mars, you must have fun with it, so the media depictions from the time were filled with all kinds of humorous explanations, including one that declared Osama Bin Laden had been hiding on the red planet all along.
Even if it is bigfoot (spoiler: No it’s not), future Mars explorers have nothing to fear. According to this fantastic debunk of the Sasquatch angle, the figurine is around 6 cm tall.
The author of that linked piece, Emily Lakdawalla, sounds annoyed, because the story was one of the biggest to come out of Spirit’s mission, and it was sensational nonsense, rather than something about Spirit’s incredible contributions to science.
We see her point. Here’s the original NASA image that got the tin-foil hatters in a tizzy:
Pretty right? Now, click here for a link to a larger version of it, and feast your eyes on the panorama. We’ll wait.
If you’re like us, you probably spent some time in full-zoom mode, getting a close-up look of that incredible scene which, we remind you, is on another planet. The “figurine” itself is a little up from the bottom left-hand corner.
You have to look really hard to see it. So just think: Every time NASA releases one of these incredible photos, there are actually folks that prefer to comb every inch of it for aliens, rather than just kick back, admire the view, and marvel at how far we’ve come.
When folks (and by folks, we mean conspiracy theorists) talk in hushed tones of the lizard people from Mars, it’s rare that they’re referring to, you know, actual lizards.
Incredibly, this came up not once, but twice, in the last year. Take a look at this shot below, from Curiosity's archives:
If you squint juuuuuuuust right, that outlined rock kind of looks a bit like an iguana or other lizard, doesn’t it? At least, that’s what the author of this blog on a UFO sightings blog reckoned when he posted the image in May.
He reckons iguanas are ideally suited to survival in low-water environments, but can’t help but wonder whether NASA isn’t keeping a bunch of cryogenically frozen animals deep in the bowels of Curiosity, and letting them out to study their reaction to the Martian atmosphere.
And you know, fair point. Leaving aside the fact that a) Mars’ poisonous and very thin atmosphere hasn’t been conclusively proven to support even microbial life, b) the lack of flowing water found so far, c) The fact that that “iguana” is clearly just an interestingly weathered rock and d) the fact that, no, NASA isn’t shooting frozen lizards to Mars, because come on, now.
That same blog played host to a better resolution image of yet another iguana later in 2013. This time the poster claimed to have seen 10-15 different animals in various NASA-released shots, and even to have noticed that some of the beasties vanish in other shots.
Again, just cool weathered rocks. But unlike the science blogger we linked to in the Bigfoot entry, it seems NASA is actually a little philosophical about these things.
When one official was reached for comment (this time for, um, a rat sighting), he reckoned the pleasant side effect of the media coverage that usually ensues was that it would get people interested in Mars.
And, no, Curiosity isn’t going to turn back and investigate the menagerie that seems to be accompanying it. That costs time and money, and the rover has more interesting things to look at.
NEXT PAGE: Homer Simpson visits Mars, forgets his donut
The jelly donut
As far as weird Mars sightings go, we’re pretty sure a sweet confection is a new one.
Although Curiosity tends to get the most press these days, it’s only the latest rover to touch down on the planet. One of its predecessors, Opportunity, can still make it into the headlines despite being 10 years old.
In this case, it was due to spotting a tantalizingly colourful anomaly:
No conspiracy here: That rock clearly wasn’t there a few days previously, and NASA very publicly scratched its head over it.
At one point, the theory was it was debris kicked up from a nearby meteorite impact, although William Shatner urged NASA to consider whether it was ‘martian rock throwers’ (although we’re sure he was only joking).
Luckily, this mystery was easily solved, simply by turning Opportunity’s camera backward, and seeing its tracks quite clearly going over a fractured piece of rock.
So the ‘jelly donut’ was kicked up by Opportunity itself, but even that was a boon for science. When they analysed the rock, it was found to contain high levels of not-so-tasty sulfur and manganese – two elements easily dissolved in water, that NASA says may have been concentrated in the rock through water action.
So from Homer Simpson’s lost lunch, to a scientific breakthrough. Not bad for a colourful bit of random rock.
Trees on Mars
Not to be outdone by all these upstart rovers, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, using its unassailable vantage point in the skies above the red planet, has its own share of optical illusions.
Looking at the pic below, you’d swear sideways those are totally trees, leafless and blackened by the Martian sun but still stretching toward the red sky amid an otherwise lifeless landscape.
It’s amazing what you can do with a camera and an orbital vantage point. The angle makes it look like those are trees, but they are actually dark streaks of dislodged sand running down those dunes.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is paying a lot of attention to the planet’s more polar regions, in its search for evidence of water. Those parts of the planet are covered in carbon dioxide ice and frost for the winter, and when spring comes, rising temperatures result in evaporation.
So that dark material is the result of small landslides of material unsettled as the evaporation process takes place, according to NASA.
The planet is long-dead, so the likelihood of finding sophisticated vegetation as large as trees is miniscule, but the orbital probe is finding more and more evidence that flowing water may have been present on mars in the distant past.
An entire civilization
You might say this is the one that started it all, way back in 1877.
That’s when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli turned what we presume was one of the more advanced telescopes at the time toward the red planet, to try and map its surface.
He figured he saw channels, likely meaning gullies or canyons or the like.
Problem: The Italian word he used, “canali,” sounded quite a bit like “canals.”
Just like the big proponents of all these other weird Mars sightings, people at the time heard the word, and saw what they wanted to see – especially when you consider the Suez Canal, then considered a marvel of advanced engineering, wasn’t even a decade old, so the idea was very much on the public mind.
We’re not sure how the idea of a canal-based civilization on Mars flew with most astronomers, but a couple of them really ran with it, including American Percival Lowell. He started observing them himself from his Arizona observatory, and mapped several of them, apparently in the genuine belief he was seeing signs of a real civilization.
Just like with all these other examples though, it was a prime example of pareidolia, which is man’s natural inclination to see familiar shapes in (Best example: Seeing faces in clouds).
Also keep in mind this was the 19th century, when telescopes weren’t remotely as advanced as they are now, and there’s even a theory that Lowell may have been seeing the veins of his own eyeballs projected into the telescope’s viewfinder.
Still, we can’t help but be impressed. Forget bigfoot, lizards and trees, Lowell was so ambitious he imagined a whole civilization.