It seems that a new field of study was threatening to emerge with the “discovery” of what appeared to be a Martian rat. The technical term for it is Martian mammology, the study of mammals that are native to Mars. Luckily, proponents of this field did not manage to overpower the good people at NASA, who remain dedicated to serious scientific research. And now, the Curiosity rover is moving on to study bigger and better things.
Yes, the appearance of this would-be rodent did generate a lot of buzz on the internet of late, with some UFO buffs claiming that it may be an indigenous Red Planet lifeform or an Earth rodent Curiosity carried to Mars as part of a secret experiment. But Curiosity scientists were relatively certain that the rat, which was spotted in a zoomed-in portion of a photo taken by the rover in September 2012, was just a rock.
Curiosity deputy project scientist Joy Crisp, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters on Wednesday, June 5, what they believed the curiously-shaped rock was the result of:
Clearly, it results from, you know, a lot of things like wind erosion and mechanical abrasion and breakdown chemical weathering of the rocks, as to why they get these weird shapes.
Under the circumstances, NASA does not feel the need to conduct any further studies. And the window to do so will last just a few more weeks, as the Curiosity rover is set to begin an epic drive that will take it far away from the petrified rodent. At the moment, the robot is gearing up for a year-long trek that will take it to the base of Mount Sharp, a mysterious mountain that rises 5.5 km (3.4 miles) into the Red Planet sky.
Curiously (no pun!), this is not the first time people have seen faced in the rock surfaces of Mars. Remember the elusive “Face on Mars”? Originally taken by the Viking 1 spacecraft in 1976, this low-resolution picture of the Cydonia region of Mars ignited the imaginations of people all over the world. For years, the face was mentioned in feature films, television series’, video games, comics, and even pop music.
Even after a series of high-resolution photos – taken some twenty years later by a succession of space craft – proved it to just be a simple rock formation, many people still insisted that the “face” was real and proved the existence of intelligent life on Mars. And such examples are hardly reserved to the Red Planet. Every year, there are stories of people witnessing “miracles” as divine visions appear to them in seemingly random objects, either of religious figures or personal heroes.
It’s whats known as pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon which refers to the human brain’s tendency to spot familiar things in random images. According to Crisp, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In truth, she claims NASA scientists get amused when this happens:
It’s fun in a way, too, in that it will attract a lot of the public to look at the images and learn a little bit about Mars by pulling them in this way.
So much like people seeing the Virgin Mary in a wall-stain, Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun, or the face of Jesus and/or Elvis in their grilled cheese sandwich, the Mars Rat is likely to be with us for awhile yet. Perhaps he’ll go beyond the current internet meme and start a trend, with t-shirts and apparel for all. All he needs is a slogan: “Mars Rat Says ‘That’s My Cheese!'” …I’ll work on it 😉