Curiosity sees bizarre spikes on Mars

This image was taken by Mast Camera (Mastcam) aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover on Sol 3474 (2022-05-15 13:35:22 UTC). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In August 2012, the Curiosity rover landed in Gale Crater on Mars and began exploring the surface for signs of past life. The rover made profound discoveries during this time, including evidence that the crater was once a huge lake bed and the detection of multiple methane spikes. The rover also took images of several interesting terrain features, many of which went viral after the photos were shared with the public. Time and again, these photos have proven that the tradition of seeing faces or patterns in random objects (aka pareidolia) is alive and well when it comes to Mars.

On Sol 3474 (May 15, 2022), the Mast Camera (Mastcam) of the Curiosity rover took a particularly interesting image showing spikes protruding from the ground. The teeth are likely material that survived erosion of the surrounding sedimentary rock, which is consistent with other evidence obtained by Curiosity that shows how common erosion and sedimentary deposition was in Gale Crater ( and still are). That being said, the pareidolia crowd (fresh off the “Doorway” hoax) is sure to have a blast with this one.

This image was taken by Mast Camera (Mastcam) aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover on Sol 3474 (2022-05-15 13:35:22 UTC). On May 26, the photo started making the rounds after the SETI Institute tweeted about it and offered a possible (i.e. sensible and rational) explanation for how the feature formed. As they explained, the spikes were likely “cemented filings from ancient fractures in sedimentary rock” left behind when the surrounding rock (made of softer material) eroded away. There are two possible mechanisms for this.

As scientists have learned, largely through evidence provided by Curiosity, Gale Crater was once a lake bed that flowed liquid water. This coincided with the Noachian period (about 4.1 to 3.7 billion years ago) when Mars had a denser atmosphere, a warmer environment, and water flowing over its surface. Water movement in Gale Crater has led to the formation of sedimentary features, such as the rock layers that form the base of Mount Sharp. Although Mars does not experience waterborne erosion today, it still experiences massive dust storms that can erode sedimentary rock faces.

However, the tweet has inspired a flurry of pet suggestions and theories. A particularly interesting example is that it could be fulgurites, those glass tubes found in sandy regions that form when lightning strikes and causes silica sand and rock to fuse together. Although this is a technical possibility, it is highly unlikely. While some research suggests that lightning could occur during dust storms (due to atmospheric particles generating static electricity), lightning has never been observed on Mars.

Additionally, Mars’ atmosphere is too thin to contain the voltage necessary to generate the types of powerful lightning that cause fulgurites here on Earth. Finally, the fact that Curiosity found this feature would suggest that they are statistically significant, which is not supported by either observational evidence or theoretical research (which suggests it is rare). In short, any lightning that might occur on Mars would be too rare and weak to explain a feature like this.

It seems smart money is currently on the possibility that this feature was caused by eroding. But that’s not likely to deter a flood of speculation and wild ideas. It’s basically an ongoing tradition when it comes to Mars. Examples date back as far as Schiaparelli’s “Canali” features, the Viking 1 orbiter image of the “Face of Mars”, “the Humanoid”, the “wooden board”, the “Jelly Donut”, the “dinosaur skull” and the many, many other cases where people saw things that weren’t there.

Perseverance has a pet

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