Cosmic Space

‘Martian Flower’ blooms in a Red Planet menagerie

A weird shape spotted on the surface of Mars may look like an agave plant, a starfish, fossilized coral or even an infant Demogorgon, but experts say there’s a perfectly natural explanation for the object that’s been dubbed a “Martian Flower.”

The tiny multi-branched shape was captured in images from the ChemCam and Mars Hand Lens Imager on NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been operating for nearly 10 years in Gale Crater on Mars.

It’s the latest in a succession of weird bits of stuff that have turned up amid the thousands of pictures sent back to Earth by robotic Red Planet probes. Other examples include a skull-shaped rock, an alien footprint (actually, a wheelprint), the Mermaid on Mars, the Mars rat, Martian macaroni (a.k.a. rover rotini) Curiosity’s plastic shred, Phoenix’s sprung spring and Opportunity’s bunny ears.

Such objects typically spark snarky references to alien shenanigans. This time, thankfully, there’s been little of that. Planetary scientists were quick to weigh in with more plausible explanations.

“Very likely the result of wind erosion, though [it] does startle you at first, doesn’t it?” Carolyn Porco, who headed the imaging team for NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn, said in a tweet.

Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, got a bit more technical in his Twitter analysis.

“Looks like wee marcasite pseudomorphs commonly found in evaporite settings,” he wrote. “It’s probably now an iron oxide taking the form of what was originally some iron-sulphide material.”

There were also comparisons to desert roses, which are crystal concretions that build up through the interaction of water, wind and sand over the course of eons; and to fulgurites, which are clumps of fused sand created by lightning strikes. (For the record, lightning strikes are rare on Mars.)

The latest mission update from the Curiosity rover’s science team calls the concretion feature “Blackthorn Salt.” Abigail Fraeman, deputy project scientist for the Mars Curiosity mission, said the structure was formed by minerals precipitating from water.

We’ve seen structures like this before, most prominently all the way back at Pahrump Hills,” Fraeman said in a tweet. “There, the features were made of salts called sulfates.”

Our fascination with weird shapes like Blackthorn Salt — or for that matter, the Face on Mars, the granddaddy of Martian anomalies — stems from pareidolia, our tendency to make out seemly meaningful patterns in random shapes.

Such space anomalies aren’t limited to Mars: A couple of months ago, China’s Yutu 2 rover sent back a picture from the moon’s surface that seemed to show a cube-shaped structure on the horizon. Closer examination of the “Mystery Hut,” determined that it was nothing more than a blocky rock.

Bottom line? Geology is capable of serving up phenomena that are weirder and more wonderful than we expect — and in these troubled times, it’s not a bad idea to take a break every once in a while and smell the Martian flowers.

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.

2 replies on “‘Martian Flower’ blooms in a Red Planet menagerie”

Hi Alan! Great piece! I always enjoy reading your posts. If you ever want to help a Children’s Educational Songwriter, write a song about Pluto, 😁please reach out on Twitter, where I follow you. I could use some help from a professional scientist. Take care, stay well. Peace, Annie Lynn AnnieBirdd Music, LLC

No one has made leap to a 1957 film called The Monolith Monsters? Seeing it when I was about 8-12 years old, it was super creepy! The crystals in the movie where dozens of feet tall.

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