Mars Flips Us The Bird

A curiously shaped Mars dune (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
A curiously shaped Mars dune (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Is that a bird? Yes, I can see a bird! A bird on Mars! Aliens must have created it to send us a message! Actually, no, it’s a curiously shaped dune on the Martian surface. My subconscious brain has just processed a familiar shape and my conscious brain did the rest.

Captured by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), this dune is located in the north polar sand sea (commonly referred to as the “north polar erg”) and it is undergoing the process of defrosting. As the Red Planet’s northern hemisphere is entering springtime, the increased intensity of sunlight is causing carbon dioxide ice (and some water ice) to sublimate into the atmosphere. The ice can be seen as frosty white patches, whereas the dark patches are likely freshly deposited particles from carbon dioxide geysers erupting from the surface.

This is all well and good — how amazing it is to be witnessing the onset of Martian spring at such high resolution! — but it’s the bird head (possibly some kind of falcon?) that drew me into reading about this fascinating HiRISE update in the first place.

This is a fantastic example of pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon that makes us see familiar images in apparently random assortments of shapes. It’s the same phenomenon that makes us see the shapes of bunnies in clouds and the face of Jesus in burnt toast. Interestingly, the HiRISE folks didn’t point out the bird head in this particular photo, but considering they recently brought us the “Elephant On Mars,” I’m thinking this is no coincidence. Those sneaky scientists. During the fun elephant escapade earlier this month, HiRISE scientist Alfred McEwen decided to use the “elephantolia” as an opportunity to teach some really cool Martian geology and make us aware of Martian pareidolia. (Apparently an elephant couldn’t outrun an ancient flood of Mars lava, who knew!)

Right around the same time, images were released of the shape of a parrot in a Martian mesa. Unfortunately, the parrot researchers weren’t joking — they seem to wholeheartedly believe some form of alien intelligence is involved. But as demonstrated by the new HiRISE image, the parrot research is totally based on pareidolia (or “parrotolia”). They saw a parrot, and they have spent years proving it’s a parrot. The logical misstep is astonishing.

In fact, I found this whole thing so astonishing that I plucked this particular parrot to death in my most recent Al Jazeera English op-ed. And yes, I used Monty Python to emphasize my point.

Many thanks to Jason Major for pointing out the HiRISE pareidolia!

I See Mars Faces… Everywhere

The two suspect shapes spotted by Mars conspiracy theorists. Exhibit 1: The Egyptian statue. Exhibit 2: ??

During my search for material for last week’s Wide Angle: Mars Roving on Discovery, I was looking for images snapped by the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity. During my trawl around Google Images, I managed to find a high-resolution picture of the rocky outcrop on the side of Victoria Crater when Opportunity was imaging the area in 2006.

I’ve always loved these Victoria images; you can easily see layering in the exposed rock and boulders strewn below. In fact, this could be a black and white picture of the Utah desert, or a wide angle view of the Grand Canyon. But no, this is Mars; lifeless Mars.

Or is it?

One version of the Opportunity image can be found on a conspiracy website, where a ‘study’ has been carried out. And guess what they found?

Oh yes, apparently a Martian civilization worshiped the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, carving a statue more commonly associated with pyramids into the crater wall (“Exhibit A” in the image above). Also, there’s a curiously shaped multi-layer disk on the ground — obviously some kind of alien artifact (“Exhibit B”).

Please.

Normally I’d ignore something like this, but I thought I’d have a little fun one evening (because my evenings simply aren’t exciting enough, it seems). Inspired by Phil Plait’s visions of Miss Piggy in a Mars mesa last week, I wanted to test myself and go on a pareidolia hunt of my own, armed with the Victoria crater pic, my imagination and questionable eyesight.

The human brain is a strange old thing at times, creating recognizable features out of random, inanimate objects, and that is exactly what some people use as “proof” of their nutty theory or visions of the second coming. People see Jesus in burnt toast, Michael Jackson in cloud formations and, in this case, ancient Egyptian statues carved into crater rims on Mars.

So have a look at this, I impressed myself (note the outstanding use of Photoshop):

Mars faces:

What I discovered in this single NASA Mars image:

A: Exhibit A – the Egyptian statue.
B: Exhibit B – some other artifact.
C: Admiral "It’s a trap!" Ackbar from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
D: Audry II, the blood-drinking plant from Little Shop of Horrors.
E: Jabba the Hutt, or an angry toad.
F: A gorilla’s head (kinda).
G: Can’t remember what I saw in this… but it’s kinda alien looking… right?
H: Insane-looking face. Could be the Mad Hatter?
I: Weird-looking Picasso face.
J: The alien from Predator.
K: Human head.
L: Another Egyptian statue, head part.
M: Humanoid skull!

I’ve even got a full-resolution version in case you can’t see the fruits of my imagination (all 4MB of it). But who cares if you can’t see Jabba, Ackbar, skulls or statues? That’s not the point; most conspiracy sites skew the facts to convince the reader to believe their false claims anyway. Hmmm… I’m quite good at this, perhaps I should start my own ‘Mars Faces’ conspiracy, only including characters from Star Warshmmm.

I’m personally most impressed with the “humanoid skull” (M), “Admiral Ackbar” (C) and the “insane face” (H). Obviously the ancient Martian civilization were a part of the Empire (not so far, far away), carried out sacrifices on humanoids (bones now littering the plains), worshipped Egyptian kings and had killer rock sculpting skills. Obviously.

Want more Mars faces? We have some puzzles on the subject over at Discovery Space! What are the odds…