If, like me, you've spent countless hours staring at astronomical photographs, you know the score: there's a lot of noise, artifacts and anomalies. (And no, when I say "artifacts" I don't mean big, black monoliths standing erect on the moon.)
How many times have you seen a star "with wings" that appears to be orbiting the sun? Some people jump to the conclusion that it's the mythically stupid planet Nibiru. Scientists know that its actually Mercury reflecting too much light, causing the camera's CCD ("charge-coupled device") to become oversaturated.
Often a smudge in an old photographic plate is confused for an invading hoard of angry aliens hell-bent on giving us a bad 2012. In fact, astronomers know that the odd-looking smudge is... a smudge.
And who can forget all the amazing wildlife that lives on the Martian surface! Alas, the yeti, skull, statues and an alien with a big head are all figments of our imagination - rocks that look funny. We know they're not really what the conspiracy theorists say they are... right?
And so, that brings me to this week's case of Martian mistaken identity, a story I passed up a couple of times, but it just won't go away.
Fresh from Conspiracy Theory Mecca (a.k.a. YouTube) a self-described "Armchair Astronaut" has created a video describing his discovery of some kind of structure on Mars while using the Mars maps available on Google Earth. (Frustratingly, at time of writing, the YouTube video has been taken offline. It was rapidly approaching 1 million views before removal.) By his reckoning, this "structure" is 750 x 150 feet, making it an obvious top secret base of some kind.
He gave the structure a name: "Bio Station Alpha." Why not? It's as good a name as any.
If you want to find the station on Google Earth/Mars, scoot over to the coordinates 71°49'23.37″N 29°33'5.65″W and have a look for yourself.
As soon as I saw Bio Station Alpha, I first thought "how the heck did he find that?!" It's tiny! If you were looking for it, it would be like looking for a needle in a planet-sized haystack. I have to assume he found it by accident, otherwise this guy has way too much time on his hands.* Sadly, and as you may have guessed, that's no Mars base.
"It looks like a linear streak artifact produced by a cosmic ray," Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist at the University of Arizona, told Space.com.
Cosmic rays are highly energetic particles that buzz around in space. Outside our protective atmosphere, space is teeming with these things - ionizing particles, usually protons from the sun, that are a serious concern for humans when we eventually leave our protective nest and start colonizing other worlds, like Mars.
For our technology, cosmic rays are a menace too. In this case, the leading candidate that created a streak across a Mars satellite image appears to be a cosmic ray trail. The cosmic ray hit the satellite's camera CCD, causing some pixels to "misfire." Any pixelation surrounding the streak is just caused by image compression by the spacecraft or Google's server.
While this is a rather tame conspiracy video - after all, "Black Ops" or psychics weren't mentioned once! - it's a reminder not to jump to conclusions when spotting anomalies in space imagery. Space is interesting enough without having to make stuff up.
Still, it would be nice, one day, to load up Google Earth - or whatever program we'll have in the future to explore distant planets from our armchair - and be able to resolve a real Martian colony. Imagine seeing the tire tracks, not of robotic rovers, but of human expeditions across the Red Planet's plains.
Hopefully, that reality will be in the not-so-distant future...
*Speaking of which, I managed to find Bio Station Alpha's outhouse, north of the station - it's at the coordinates 73°13'59.91″N 31° 9'55.97″W. Ah, wait, it might just be a speck of dust... or another one of those pesky cosmic rays.
Special thanks to Mary Mactavish for originally pointing out this Mars tomfoolery!
Image: A close-up of "Bio Station Alpha" Credit: Google