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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:

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

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.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

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

Image: Meyers Konversations-Lexikon\Wikimedia Commons

Image: Meyers Konversations-Lexikon\Wikimedia Commons

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.

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