Cosmic Space

Rover spots ‘alien skull’ and other Mars oddities

As sure as Martian winter brings on carbon dioxide frost, the release of high-resolution Mars imagery brings on a rash of alien sightings.

So it’s no surprise that today’s unveiling of a high-resolution, 360-degree panorama, based on image data from NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars, has inspired serious and not-so-serious efforts to find anomalous shapes amid the reddish sands of Jezero Crater.

More than one sharp-eyed observer spotted a skull-shaped rock not far from the rover’s wheels. Others pointed to a bright-colored spot near the horizon — and wondered whether it might represent the wreckage of the rocket-powered “Sky Crane” descent stage that dropped the rover onto the Martian surface and then flew off to a crash landing.

The most surprising anomaly was spotted not on the panoramic image, but on one of the pictures snapped by a hazard avoidance camera just a couple of minutes after the Feb. 18 landing. A column of dust and smoke could be seen rising up from the horizon. Yes, it was coming from the dearly departed descent stage. But no, it wasn’t anywhere close to the bright-colored formation, which was probably just a rock formation gleaming in the sun.

The alien skull on Mars joins a long list of Red Planet anomalies that really aren’t all that anomalous, starting with the Face on Mars.

Plenty of weird spottings were made after the Spirit and Opportunity rovers bounced to the Martian surface in 2004. Who can forget the alien footprint, the mermaid on Mars, the rover rotini, Opportunity’s bunny ears and Martian blueberries?

The Curiosity rover mission, which got its start on Mars in 2012, brought us the white blob, the Mars rat, the totally real plastic scrap on Mars and the totally fake plastic beads on Mars.

Perseverance’s landing site is a particularly fertile field for weird shapes, due to the presence of “holey” rocks that provide honest-to-goodness mysteries for geologists to solve. You can connect all those cavities to create plenty of patterns,  including the aforementioned skull shape. Add in some wind-sculpted stones and paving-stone slabs, and you’ve got a paradise for pareidolia fans.

The rover’s first 360-degree panorama, taken using the Mastcam-Z zoom camera system, will take center stage on Feb. 25 during a Q&A session at 1 p.m. PT. You can watch the NASA TV event via NASA’s Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, Daily Motion and YouTube channels.

Speakers will include Arizona State University’s Jim Bell, principal investigator for the Mastcam-Z instrument, as well as teammates Elsa Jensen of Malin Space Science Systems and Kjartan Kinch of the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on this selection of Mars anomalies:

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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