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