Curiosity and the Case of the Martian “Coffin”

Hey folks! Thought I’d pop by to share a recent story that I was originally supposed to write about for UT, but which got delayed and then fell out of the news rotation. However, since I feel that the story is really relevant and was quite proud of it, I’d figured it could see the light of day over here. As the title says, it’s all about the recent “discovery” of a coffin on Mars, and all the wacko speculation that followed. Enjoy!


It’s whats known as pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon which refers to the human brain’s tendency to spot familiar things in random images. And when it comes to the Red Planet, there has been no shortage of incidents where people have seen familiar shapes and objects amidst the barren landscape.

First there was the Martian rat, followed shortly thereafter by the Martian doughnut, thighbone, and ball. And in the the latest case of curious objects spotted by the Curiosity rover, it appears that a long, flat rock has UFOlogists claiming there’s a coffin on the surface. Alas, it seems that Dracula is a Martian!

This picture was one of several sent back by the Curiosity Rover, which is currently drilling in the Gale Crater, looking for more samples of methane. After pouring over the photos at NASA JPL’s Mars Exploration Laboratory site, space blogger WhatsUpInTheSky37 noticed the odd shape and immediately posed about it.

Over on his site, which deals with the subject of “Mars Anomolies”, he posted sections of the photo that emphasized the long, box-like rock with the following comment: “Sure would love to know what’s buried in that coffin.”

The original Curiosity photo. The "coffin" appears near the bottom, whereas the "stonework" is distributed beyond it. Credit: NASA/JPL
The original Curiosity photo. The “coffin” appears near the bottom, whereas the “stonework” is distributed beyond it. Credit: NASA/JPL

Naturally, he since indicated on both his website and Youtube Channel that such observations were made facetiously. However, he was sincere in his belief that this rock, plus the apparent “stonework” arranged around it, are part of a growing mountain of evidence that Mars was once home to a flourishing civilization.

As he put it: “At sometime or even currently on Mars something was crawling around.  Something that was intelligent enough to work the stone and the landscape just like the beings here on Earth have for thousands of years.”

Very quickly, the photos went viral and attracted the attention of conspiracy theorists, who quickly took the internet to comment on this alleged coffin and NASA’s failure to comment. One blogger, writing for Top Secret Information, wrote the following in response to the image:

“This little box sure does look like a modern coffin concrete liner. As well as the stonework on the back part of the hill that looks like stairs or some left over stonework from some old civilisations constructions. It is incomprehensible that NASA takes no action to examine the stone box.”

Another blogger from UFO Sightings Daily – which also deals with suspicious photos and conspiracy theories – was quick to recommend that NASA inspect the box. “Coffins are made to stand the test of time, but this one is made from a stone like substance,” he wrote. “What would it take to get NASA to turn the rover around and examine the contents of this box?

Your typical "grey". Note the large eyes, grey skin, and compact dimensions. Perhaps for a tiny, stone coffin. Credit: 20th Century Fox Studios.
Your typical “grey”. Note the large eyes, grey skin, and compact dimensions – perfect for a tiny, stone coffin. Credit: 20th Century Fox Studios.

Said blogger also estimated the dimensions of the so-called coffin from the photos taken, saying that the dimensions are consistent with the size of a Martian. “It looks to be about one meter across and a foot and a half wide and high. Lots of alien species are short, including a species of greys.”

Greys, it should be noted, is a slang term aliens that have grey skin, no hair, big black eyes, and are short and hairless – a concept popularized by pulp science fiction and conspiracy theorists for many decades.

But as you can clearly see from the original, unedited photo, there are any number of rocks in the picture. Any one of them could be said to resemble something other than Martian stone. And human beings are renowned for their ability to pick out patterns from seemingly random objects, seeking the familiar in an otherwise confusing and chaotic universe.

The most well-known instance of this occurring in relation to Mars took place back in 1976, when the Viking 1 Orbiter snapped a photo of a long mesa in the Cydonia region that appeared to have a “face” staring out into space.

This photo became the basis for the “Face on Mars” controversy that would remain fixed in the public imagination for another two decades, until a slew of spacecraft visited the planet and took much sharper photos of the Cydonia region. These included NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image by its HiRISE camera of the "Face on Mars". Viking Orbiter image inset in bottom right corner. Credit: NASA/HiRISE
Image of the “Face on Mars”, taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. The Viking Orbiter image is visible in the bottom right corner. Credit: NASA/HiRISE

What they found, using their high-resolution cameras, dispelled the notion of a face being carved into the mesa by an intelligent species. Nevertheless, decades later, the popularity of a Martian civilization leaving clues of its existence persists – as demonstrated by this latest “coffin” controversy.

Needless to say, NASA has not yet offered any comment, nor have they shown any desire to indulge suggestions that Curiosity change course and investigate the “coffin”. As it stands, Curiosity’s schedule is full investigating the discovery of organic molecules on Mars, a finding which actually point towards the possibility of their once being life on the planet.

This is perhaps the greatest irony to arise out of this and other conspiracy theories regarding the Red Planet. All too often, these viral theories distract from the scientific research going on, not to mention the real implications it presents. Unfortunately, it is also a tendency amongst people to see significance where we want it to be rather than where it truly resides.

Like it or not, the human mind has always been determined to find patterns in the chaos, be it faces on Mars, portents in the heavens, fortunes in tea leaves and chicken entrails, or the face of Jesus in a gasoline rainbow. And if there’s one thing people love more than making sense out of their world, it’s a good old fashioned conspiracy involving aliens and evil government agencies!

And feel free to check out this video from What’s Up in the Sky which explains the “coffin and stonework” theory:

News From Mars: Mysterious “Thigh Bone” Revealed!

mars-thigh-bone-illusion-curiosity-photoTwo weeks ago, the Curiosity rover spotted an object on the surface of Mars that bore a striking resemblance to a femur (aka. athigh bone). This sighting caused a bit of a media stir and fueled speculation – mainly by conspiracy and UFO theorists – that proof of life on Mars had finally been found. This claim was quickly picked up by media outlets and began to spread like a bad strain of flu.

Alas, NASA has since announced that the finding, much like the Martian “donut” and “rat”, was just another piece of oddly-shaped rock. Mission scientists believe that here too, the rock was sculpted into its unusual shape by wind or water erosion. NASA announced all this when they released Curiosity’s “thigh bone” photo with a science explanation on Thursday (Aug. 21). In the caption, they said that:

No bones about it! Seen by Mars rover Curiosity using its MastCam, this Mars rock may look like a femur thigh bone. Mission science team members think its shape is likely sculpted by erosion, either wind or water.

If life ever existed on Mars, scientists expect that it would be small simple life forms called microbes. Mars likely never had enough oxygen in its atmosphere and elsewhere to support more complex organisms. Thus, large fossils are not likely.

MARS-COMET-surfaceIn short, the long-sought after signs of life that NASA is searching for have yet to be found. The Curiosity rover has found evidence that Mars was once a habitable place in the ancient past, mainly by determining with certainty that it once held water and a viable atmosphere. However, to date, there is no evidence that creatures large enough to leave a bone behind ever existed on the planet.

There is a long tradition of seeing shapes in Mars rocks that don’t reflect reality. The phenomenon in which the human brain perceives faces, animals or other shapes that aren’t really there is known as pareidolia; and when it comes to Mars, there is a long and fertile history of this taking place. In fact, in 1877 when astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli looked up at Mars when it was in opposition, he spotted a network of lines that ran along the planet.

martian_canalsLater astronomers confirmed these sightings and erroneously thought them to be canals, an observation which was quickly seized upon by the popular imagination and spawned an entire mythos of there being a civilization on Mars. This civilization, made up of little green men known as Martians, is the entire basis of alien mythology which would go on to inspire 20th century works as The War of the Worlds and The Martian Chronicles.

And for those old enough to recall, the “Martian face”, which was captured by the Viking Orbiter in 1976, is a more modern example. As you can see from the picture below (lower right hand), the low-resolution photos of the Cydonian mesa led many people to see a human face in it. This led to much speculation and more than a few crackpot theories about a civilization on Mars.

mars_faceHowever, high-res photos taken in 2001 by the Mars Global Surveyor probe (center) put these claims largely to rest by showing that the “face” was just an optical illusion. However, many of these same theorists moved on to claim that pyramid-like formations in that same region (Cydonia) so closely resembled those of Giza that there had to be a common explanation – i.e. aliens built the pyramids.

And in all cases, the golden rule seems to apply: never let little a thing like the facts or plausibility get in the way of a good story! As the rover continues on its long mission to find evidence of life on Mars, I am sure there will be plenty more pictures being seized upon by oddball theorists who are looking to peddle their oddball theories. Some of them are sure to be entertaining, so stay tuned!

Sources: cbc.ca, space.com

News From Mars: Curiosity Leaving “Mars Rat” Behind

mars_ratIt 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.

mars_rat1Curiosity 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.

mars_faceCuriously (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.

pareidoliaIt’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 😉

Source: space.com