TCS Daily

Mars Mirage

By Erik Baard - February 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Perhaps our next Mars probe should be called the Tinkerbell. The fairy from "Peter Pan" was brought to life by children shouting, "I do believe in fairies! I do! I do!" The same chorus of belief in Martians resounds with each downpour of images and data from the apparently dead Red Planet.

The photos sent home by the rovers Spirit and Opportunity have already set off a flurry of Internet chatter amongst amateur space enthusiasts. Would be astrobiologists (a new field that weds astronomy with biology) claim to see everything from fossilized coral and seashells to an admittedly creepy looking claw. The European Space Agency's orbiting Mars Express has produced an image to fire speculation too -- a grainy object that some identify as a stepped pyramid with an underground entrance.

It's been more than a hundred years since wealthy Boston patrician Percival Lowell thrilled imaginations with his assertion that a great civilization had crisscrossed the dusty plains of our neighboring world with canals. Back then the evidence came from Lowell and Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli's drawings made from observations through ground telescopes. Those observatories were feeble compared to what we use today, but cutting edge in their time. But how do such vain hopes persist in the face of data from modern advanced imaging systems and robots leaving tracks on the planet itself?

That undying hope has had the odd effect of casting NASA scientists who've dedicated their lives to looking for the slightest glimmer of life elsewhere (a cockroach, some slime, a microbe) as conspirators hiding entire alien cities from the rest of us.

"Look, Mars, like Earth, is a complex world. There are going to be rocks with a seemingly infinite number of shapes. As on Earth, some of these will include simple geometrical forms, both because random forces will occasionally create them, and because some geological processes make squares and circles and other polygons. If you want to start fantasizing about alien artifacts, that's fine. In fact I think it's great that many people are scrutinizing these pictures. You never know what someone may find," said David Grinspoon, a planetary scientist and astrobiologist with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder Colorado. He is the author of Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life, released by Ecco books in November.

"I personally don't think it impossible we could find an alien artifact on one of the planets or in the asteroid belt," said Grinspoon, who performs research for NASA. "The solar system is almost completely unexplored and we are completely ignorant of the prevalence, capabilities and behavior of other possible civilizations. So who knows? Someone could have been here.

"But please don't start accusing NASA of hiding or denying anything in these images because that gets kind of tired. We'd rather talk about what is really exciting in these images -- new landscapes with clues to planetary history. Nobody would be more eager and excited to discover something so important than the folks most involved in planetary exploration. We like it when people get excited about Mars exploration. Why would we ever hide the most exciting thing we could find?"

One person who might be seen carrying Lowell's torch is Thomas Van Flandern, a retired astronomer from the U.S. Naval Observatory and now chief scientist at, a group dedicated to scientific anomalies and fringe ideas. He argues that Mars bears the artifacts of a civilization that existed on a planet-sized moon that, along with the Red Planet, orbited a gas giant which exploded 65 million years ago. That homeworld also exploded a little more than three million years ago, he said, but it's possible that survivors altered the primate genetic line to create beings resembling themselves: us.

"How people react to the artistic images is a fascinating thing, the psychology of it. It's a story in its own right," Van Flandern said. "One's biases going in to view them affect one's ability to see them. Even when an image is traced for them, some people have great difficulty seeing them and it's still extremely implausible for them."

An afternoon surfing through the Meta Research website's image pages might be enough to push Grinspoon over the edge, but he notes that we've been here before. Johannes Kepler, an astronomer from 400 years ago, was convinced he saw cities on the moon because nature wouldn't make such perfect circles across the lunar landscape, Grinspoon said. Meteorite impacts and craters were at that time unknown to science, as doubtless many natural processes are a mystery to us now.

Short of grand cities and pyramids, one thing that would send hearts into palpitations at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a simple crab claw sitting in plain view. It certainly had that effect on multimedia developer Jim Love. He set up, with no small dose of humor, the website when he became fixated on an odd little object photographed by the Mars rover Opportunity, now in the Meridiani Planum region of the planet.

"To me it does look like rock color. The compelling thing to me is that the photo does seem to indicate a shadow, meaning it's something sticking up and natural," as opposed to a trick of imagining processing, said Carter Emmart, who creates three dimensional astronomy shows for the American Museum of Natural History and has illustrated books about Mars.

"That's kind of cool. I was wondering what that was," said Penelope Boston, an astrobiologist and director of the Cave and Karst Research Program at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

NASA confirmed, as near as it can, what both had suspected the object might be: our own space junk.

"We've heard that thing described as all kinds of things," said JPL educational spokesman John Sepikas. "Bunny ears, a claw, a crab, a skull -- all sorts of interpretations. We think it's material that came off the airbag. There are other little pieces lying around the field."

Sepikas acknowledged that NASA's identification wasn't certain, but said the agency was sure enough not to waste precious machine time to check out. With only weeks or months of life in them, and a temperamental start, NASA wants to use the slow-moving rovers conservatively.

"I'm pretty sure that the nearby rock outcropping will be the focus of attention for the next week or so," he said. "Any destination has got to have a high scientific value and that's not the case in this situation. It would be nice for us to clear up the identity, but we'd much rather have the science."

The lack of any immediate sign of life hasn't dampened Boston's enthusiasm. "I want to drive up to all of it," she said. But she knows that we're in for a long haul. Remarking about whether the images inspiring the new gush of Martian sightings were actual fossils, she said, "If only that were true! Everything looks unusual when there aren't enough pixels."

Image links -- What the Mars life believers say they're seeing:

Nasca-like lines and other art forms (including, of course, the Face):

The "crab" in the NASA photo. Scroll about 2/3 across and 1/3 down.

The crab page:


"Coral and shells"

"Pyramid and underground entrance (at the apex of the pic)

Square hole in the "sushi and sashimi" pic (variations - another good, new one)

and here:

The author is a TCS contributor living in New York. He last wrote for TCS about the Hubble space telescope.


TCS Daily Archives