Like Agent Fox Mulder from "The X-Files," I want to believe. I want this goofy-looking Mars rock to be a real fish. I want this little spoon-like formation spotted on the planet to be a sign of advanced table manners there. I'm both delighted and fully skeptical when UFO and alien fans spot things like statues of ancient gods and walking women on Mars. I don't believe those are signs of alien life like some do, but I want to be part of the fun.
How hard can it be to harness the power of pareidolia -- a phenomenon that causes people to see recognizable faces and shapes in unrelated objects -- to find familiar sights on Mars? We do it all the time on Earth when we see sheep in clouds, the Virgin Mary on toast and the famous ape Harambe in a Cheeto. With Mars being such a popular target of intriguing sightings lately, I decide to test my own powers of pareidolia by staring at images of the Red Planet.
As someone who spends weekends gazing at stars, gets lost for hours in NASA websites and writes about space for a living, Mars holds a particular allure for me. It's the planet I feel closest to (other than our own) since NASA has two operational rovers roaming its surface, beaming back vacation photos of exotic landscapes and doughnut-shaped rocks. Despite being millions of miles away, the minute details of Mars are as close as a browser window, and for me, there are few uses for a browser as worthwhile as a trip to space.
So here I am, clicking through NASA's raw-images library of photos delivered by the Curiosity rover all the way from the distant Red Planet. Browsing this public archive, which I've only glanced at before, is like being immersed in a pile of postcards sent back by the Mars machine (the Opportunity rover has its own images library here). It's free and updated almost daily. The images are organized by which camera took them, whether it's the landscape view of a navigation camera or a close-up from the chemistry cam.
Curiosity's image library is stocked with over 386,000 photos going all the way back to the rover's first day on the planet. I'm looking for anything that could pass for an Earth-like object. Does that lumpy rock look like a frog? Sort of, but not enough. Does that outcropping resemble a toaster? It's iffy.
This is harder than I expected. My eyes hurt and I feel a little dizzy with the rate I'm clicking through photos, scoping and straining at every craggy stone. Could that be a dragon's head? Not really. Come on, Curiosity, at least give me something that looks like a fork to go with our space spoon.
It's half an hour in. I've looked at hundreds of images and I'm thinking about giving up. Then I open the collection from Curiosity's mast camera from Sol 1450, which translates to September 4, 2016 here on Earth. At last, my quest is realized. I find not one, but three rocks that could pass for twisted, alien versions of faces.
In his 1995 book "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark," Carl Sagan suggests facial pareidolia is hardwired into human brains, a result of evolution and the need for infants to recognize their parents.
"As an inadvertent side effect," he writes, "the pattern-recognition machinery in our brains is so efficient in extracting a face from a clutter of other detail that we sometimes see faces where there are none."
Still, I clearly see eyes, noses, cheekbones, chins and outrageous pompadour haircuts. There's something both human and otherworldly about these formations. They stare into the distance. One of them peers back at the camera, like it's looking through all those many miles and into my Mars-loving soul.
I can understand why alien hunters spend time poring over Mars images, looking for any imagined sign of life. It's exciting. There's a thrill to the search -- and even more of one to the discovery. Thanks to Curiosity's camera angles, the playful fall of shadows and my human imagination, rocks can become faces.
Marveling at Mars
After spending a solid hour gazing into the ragged depths of Mars through Curiosity's eyes, I've got a new appreciation for the planet. It's not one big swathe of reddishness. It's a world of craggy hillsides, sweeping dunes and desert-like barren stretches. It's both familiar and peculiar, a mirror world to the dry Southwestern landscapes of my New Mexico home.
I would be delighted if the stones I found really were ancient carvings left behind by a defunct Mars-roaming alien civilization, but I know they're still just cool-looking rock formations. As fun as the search has been, I'm still left marveling at the real wonder here: that humans placed a machine on a planet millions of miles away from home and I have the images it sends back at my fingertips.
So thank you, Curiosity, you do not disappoint.
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