From a secret doorway to a cannonball, entertaining images from Mars amuse scientists and excite conspiracy theorists and alien fans.
Face on Mars is a classic
Humans love a good space story. That’s why it’s so much fun to speculate about unusual objects seen in images of Mars. Our imaginations turn rock formations into fish and cosmic rays into alien communications. An image from the NASA Perseverance rover generated plenty of jokes about what looks like a rear end. Is it an alien keister? Nope. It’s just a goofy rock formation.
Join us as we explore some famous Mars mysteries and the explanations behind them.
NASA’s Viking 1 Orbiter zipped near Mars in 1976 and took this now iconic image of the surface. What got everyone excited is the face-like formation in the upper center of the picture. If you have a creative mind, it’s easy to see it as having two eyes, a nose, a mouth and a weird hairdo. It even looks a bit like a young Elvis Presley. You can see why some people thought the face was an alien-built monument on Mars.
A newer look at the Mars face
NASA wasn’t going to let the face on Mars go without an explanation. The Mars Global Surveyor cleared things up for good in 2001 by taking a fresh image of the face. The newer, sharper, higher-resolution picture shows a much blobbier, less stark formation. In short, it’s just a mesa and not an alien-carved religious site.
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover caught sight of a tangled object that looked like bunch of noodles or string in July 2022. The rover team took some time working through the possibilities before declaring it was likely a bit of a netting that had blown across Jezero Crater from the crash site of the Percy’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) system.
The EDL system had delivered the rover safely to the Mars surface and then skedaddled away to crash at a safe distance. Mars has some pretty insistent winds, which seemed to have spread some debris around.
Cute little ‘spikes’
NASA’s Curiosity rover snapped views of these wild little formations on Mars on May 15, 2022. The surreal tiny bits of Martian surface were likely carved by erosion of sedimentary rock. The Curiosity team chimed in to say they were probably formed billions of years ago when groundwater moved through the area in the Gale Crater. Over time, winds eroded away softer material, leaving the spikes behind.
Not a doorway on Mars
Knock knock. Who’s there? Nobody. This NASA Curiosity rover image from May 7, 2022 does not show a doorway on Mars, despite some internet speculation to the contrary. The doorway-like appearance in a cliffside snapped in May 2022 is due to the angles of light and shadow and shapes made by the geology in this area of Gale Crater. Keep going for a more distant look that the puts the “doorway” into context.
Mars Curiosity mosaic ‘doorway’
A mosaic view of a Mars formation as seen by the Curiosity rover puts the “doorway” in Gale Crater into context. Look for the red circle near the top. The shadowy, angular opening is actually quite small. It’s a natural geologic feature.
First letter to be laser-engraved on Mars
The three tiny laser-made dots on this Mars rock will help scientists know the orientation of samples when they’re brought back to Earth. The Perseverance rover marked a tiny letter L as a test in June 2022. The rover is gathering rock samples. Knowing the exact way they fit into their host rock will be helpful for scientists when the samples are eventually collected via NASA’s planned sample return mission.
Perseverance rover ‘Butt crack rock’
NASA’s Perseverance rover arrived on the red planet in February 2021 and has since snapped a bounty of images of the landscape in the Jezero Crater. This fantastically funny-looking rock caught the eye of space fans who laughed about its resemblance to a rear end. It earned the nickname “butt crack rock.”
Mars south pole ‘angel’ and ‘heart’
Apply a little imagination to this European Space Agency Mars Express view of the red planet’s south pole and you’ll see an angel and a heart together. ESA described it as an “angelic figure” in a December 2020 image release.
It’s simply a bit of geology on display from the icy polar region where an impact crater forms the “head” and halo, and a sublimation pit (a spot where the ice turned to vapor) formed the “hand” on the left.
Mother of pearl clouds
Yes, these shimmering, colorful clouds appeared on Mars. NASA’s Curiosity rover doesn’t just eye the local geology; it also documents what’s happening in the sky. This view of iridescent “mother of pearl” clouds comes from March 5, 2021.
“If you see a cloud with a shimmery pastel set of colors in it, that’s because the cloud particles are all nearly identical in size,” said atmospheric scientist Mark Lemmon with the Space Science Institute in Colorado. “That’s usually happening just after the clouds have formed and have all grown at the same rate.”
Not a drill bit
This is not a Phillips-head drill bit on Mars, but it’s fun to pretend. Citizen scientist Kevin Gill spotted this odd, small rock in a Curiosity rover image from late 2020 and cracked a joke about it looking like a drill bit.