Space & Innovation

Is Mars Infested With Pareidolia Rats?

Is it a rat? Or is it a rock? (It's a rock.)

It has finally happened. Not content with (potentially) infecting the pristine Martian surface with our germs, it appears that we've sent a rat (yes, a whole rat) to the Red Planet. And this isn't some far-fetched hypothesis, there's photographic evidence!

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity snapped this panorama (above) of the "Rocknest" site with its MastCam camera on sol 52 (Sept. 28, 2012) of the mission. Now, with a keen eye and fertile imagination, a UFO enthusiast realized there was a camouflaged rodent hiding in the rocks. Needless to say, there's no other evidence supporting this claim, it's just something that looks like a rodent.

But as you may have guessed, after exercising an ounce of logical thought, what was once a cute furry four-legged creature suddenly becomes... wait for it... this is a good one... a rock. And there you have it ladies and gentlemen: We've found a rock on Mars... that looks like a rat.

This certainly isn't the first time shapes on Mars have fooled the brains of many. What's more, there's a name for this psychological phenomenon: pareidolia - possibly an evolutionary trait.

This psychological oddity makes us see familiar objects in apparently random shapes, such as Mars yetis, faces, elephants, black ops bases and parrots on Mars. Pareidolia is the same thing that makes us see the face of Jesus Christ in burnt toast and bunnies in clouds.

Perhaps it's time to engage some upper-level reasoning and realize that just because there's a rock on Mars that looks like a rat (whether its a trick of the light, or if it's genuinely shaped like a small mammal), it doesn't mean that it is a rat. There is also the possibility that the whole "Mars rat" thing isn't serious at all and judging by the way the initial report is worded, it could go either way.

Regardless, the story is now in the mainstream and it's highly likely that our Mars rat will soon get his own Twitter account. Therefore, it's worth reminding the world that Mars cannot support complex biology like rodents and it's highly unlikely that any basic lifeforms can be found on the Red Planet's barren surface today (although there may be some pockets of modern day habitability below the surface).

Out of interest, a few years ago, I grabbed a high-resolution photo from NASA's Mars rover Opportunity of an outcrop at Victoria Crater. After some time staring at the photo, I spotted over a dozen "faces" etched into the rock. Do you think Opportunity had wondered into an alien sculpture gallery? Or was it more likely that I'd been staring at the computer screen too long, wanting to spot odd, artificial shapes?

Like our UFO enthusiast, it's probably the latter.

Image: Once seen, it cannot be unseen. The "Mars rat" captured by Curiosity's lens. Original image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

MAHLI Power

Since NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity landed on the red planet, each sol (a Martian "day") of the mission sees a flood of new photographs from Aeolis Palus -- the plain inside Gale Crater where Curiosity landed on Aug. 5. In September 2012, mission controllers sent the command for Curiosity to flip open the dust cap in front of the robotic arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Until that point, the semi-transparent dust cap only allowed MAHLI to make out fuzzy shapes -- although it did a great job imaging Curiosity's "head" and it is also famous for capturing Curiosity's first color photograph. But since the true clarity of MAHLI has been unleashed, we've been treated to some of the most high-resolution views of the rover, Martian landscape and, most importantly, we've seen exactly what MAHLI was designed to do: Look closely at Mars rocks and dirt, assembling geological evidence of potential past habitability of Mars.

The Business End

Curiosity is armed with 17 cameras and MAHLI is designed to capture close-up photos of geological samples and formations as the rover explores. MAHLI was designed and built by Malin Space Science Systems and is analogous to a geologist's hand lens -- only a lot more sophisticated. Its high-resolution system can focus and magnify objects as small as 12.5 micrometers (that's smaller than the width of a human hair!). This photograph captured by the rover's Mastcam shows the MAHLI lens (with dust cap in place) in the center of the end of Curiosity's instrument-laden robotic arm.

Lights On!

To aid its studies, MAHLI is equipped with four LEDs to light up the imager's samples.

Mars Dirt

The first photograph to be returned from MAHLI without the dust cover in place was received on Sol 33 (Sept. 8) of Curiosity's mission. Shown here is a view of the ground immediately in front of the rover. Although this photo was a test, mission scientists were able to do a very preliminary study of the large "pebble" at the bottom of the picture: "Notice that the ground immediately around that pebble has less dust visible (more gravel exposed) than in other parts of the image. The presence of the pebble may have affected the wind in a way that preferentially removes dust from the surface around it," they wrote.

How Did Lincoln Help MAHLI?

On Sol 34 (Sept. 9), MAHLI was aimed at Curiosity's calibration target. This target is intended to color balance the instrument and provide a "standard" for mission scientists to refer to. The 1909 Lincoln penny was provided by MAHLI's principal investigatory Ken Edgett. Using a penny as a calibration target is a nod to geologists' tradition of placing a coin or some other object of known scale as a size reference in close-up photographs of rocks, says the MSL mission site.

Dusty Wheels

Although MAHLI will be used to examine microscopic scales, it is showing its prowess at generating some spectacular high-definition views of the rover. Shown here is a mosaic of Curiosity's three left-side dusty wheels.

Hazard Avoidance Cameras

Hazard Avoidance Cameras, or Hazcams, have become "standard issue" for the last three rovers to land on Mars. Mounted on the front and back of rovers Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity, these small cameras provide invaluable information about the terrain and potential hazards surrounding the rovers. These cameras are not scientific cameras -- they are engineering cameras. Shown here, MAHLI has imaged the four front Hazcams on Curiosity. Interestingly, it was these cameras who returned Curiosity's first dusty image after touch down in August.

Underbelly

Using the flexibility of the robotic arm, MAHLI was able to check the underside of Curiosity. As the camera can focus on objects from 0.8 inch (2.1 centimeters) to infinity, MAHLI has incredible versatility allowing mission controllers to focus on the very small features of Mars to checking the health of the rover to viewing the impressive vistas beyond.

Mystery Object

In October 2012, the Internet was abuzz with speculation about a "mystery object" lying beneath the rover during digging operations at "Rocknest." Sadly, after studying the translucent object, mission scientists deduced that it wasn't anything native to the alien environment, it was actually a piece of plastic that had fallen from Curiosity. Yes, Curiosity is littering the red planet.

Digging In

The MAHLI camera was very attentive while Curiosity dug trenches in the Mars soil at "Rocknest."

Mars Flower?

In early 2013, MAHLI snapped another curious photo. This time, after driving to a rocky outcrop at a location dubbed "Yellowknife," the camera picked out what appeared to be some kind of organic-looking object embedded in the rock. Nope, it's not a Mars "flower" -- more likely it's a concentration of minerals.

Cheese!

In what has become an iconic photo of Curiosity, MAHLI was commanded to capture dozens of high-resolution pictures of the rover. Like an "arms length" shot you may have in your Facebook profile, Curiosity did the same, composing a mosaic of pics taken with its outstretched robotic arm.

Curiosity Cleans Up!

The Mars rover isn't only a scientific superstar, it also has a talent for cleaning. This circular pattern on a Mars rock was brushed aside by Curiosity's Dust Removal Tool (DRT), helping the rover carry out analysis of the rock surface beneath the layer of dirt.