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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 faces and cosmic rays into alien communications. A recent image from the Mars Curiosity rover generated plenty of online speculation about what looks like a crab-shaped object tucked into a dark cranny. Is it an alien crab monster? Not likely. It's probably just a weird rock formation.

Join us as we explore some famous Mars mysteries and the scientific 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.

First published August 4, 2015.

Update, June 21, 2017: Adds images including a strange Martian pit, a trippy mesa and an "alien"  kissy face.  

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Photo by: NASA

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.

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Photo by: NASA

Oh look, a thigh bone on Mars

Mark one up for the funny-bone file. NASA's Curiosity rover sent a photo back to Earth in 2014 that showed a very odd rock shaped a bit like a femur bone from a human thigh. Scientists obligingly explained that the unusual shape was most likely the product of erosion by wind or water. If NASA ever did amazingly find human remains on Mars, scientists would want to shout it from the rooftops.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Donald Trump's head rendered in rock

President Donald Trump makes a cameo appearance on Mars in this 2009 image from NASA's Opportunity rover that hit the news in 2016. It's an excellent example of pareidolia, the same psychological phenomenon that lets us see dragons or rabbits in clouds. The rock does bear a resemblance to the businessman, complete with over-swept hair.

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Photo by: NASA/red circle added by CNET

Morse code?

This view from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, snapped in February 2016, shows some strange formations on the surface of the Red Planet. The dark raised areas are a series of dunes that look a lot like the dots and dashes of Morse code.

Unfortunately, the code spells out gibberish. Planetary scientist Veronica Bray analyzed the dune image and told Gizmodo the code works out to read "NEE NED ZB 6TNN DEIBEDH SIEFI EBEEE SSIEI ESEE SEEE !!"

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Photo by: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Here fishy fishy

There's a fish-shaped rock on Mars, but there's no actual fish there. NASA's Curiosity rover caught this unusual formation on camera and UFO and alien fans got excited about it. The rock's shape and the lighting at the time of the photo combine to create the fishy look. NASA has something to say about the possibility of fossilized bones and animals on Mars: "Mars likely never had enough oxygen in its atmosphere and elsewhere to support more complex organisms. Thus, large fossils are not likely."

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Photo by: NASA/JPL/Circle added by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Dust devil is in the details

A peculiar jet appears far back in this scenic Mars landscape photo taken by NASA's Opportunity rover in 2016. It's actually a dust devil, much like we experience here on Earth. Towering dust devils are weather hazards on Mars and they're something future human visitors will need to be prepared to handle.

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Photo by: NASA

A wild jelly doughnut appears

It wasn't there and then it was. A jelly-doughnut-shaped object appeared rather suddenly in a set of before-and-after images from NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars. Some people believed it to be an alien fungus, but NASA was having none of that nonsense.

NASA finally solved the jelly-doughnut mystery by announcing that the rock's sudden appearance was the result of the rover dislodging it by driving over it. Sadly, NASA has still not discovered snacks on Mars.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Waffle-shaped island on Mars

The Mars jelly doughnut didn't work out, but NASA wasn't done with food-shaped formations on the Red Planet just yet. An image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter from late 2014 showed a strange waffle-shaped island on the planet's surface. The 1.2-mile-wide feature is located in an area of lava flows. It's not evidence of waffle irons on Mars, but it might be the result of lava pushing the formation up from below.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Shiny object on Mars surface

Everybody likes shiny things. We like them even more when they pop up seemingly out of context on faraway planets. That happened in 2012 when NASA's Curiosity rover spotted a bright, shiny object tucked into the dull Martian soil. For perspective, the entire image covers an area just 1.6 inches across. NASA scientists confirmed the tiny bright bit is simply part of the geology of Mars.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Suspended 'spoon' stretches out

Take a look at the center of this image from NASA's Curiosity rover. You might see a long-handled spoon stretching out over the landscape, casting a shadow below. Is this a sign that cooking is a popular hobby on Mars? Unfortunately, no. Mars doesn't have the same pull of gravity we have on Earth, so fragile formations like this one have a chance of holding up and not just crumbling down to the ground.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Not an alien hunk of metal on Mars

Some Mars-watching space fans on Flickr enhanced an image captured by the Mars Curiosity in early 2013 to highlight what appears to be a hunk of metal just hanging out on the Red Planet's surface. The likely explanation is a lot less fun than imagining a race of metal-forging aliens. The object is probably a piece of a meteorite or the result of strange lighting. It's definitely not an alien fertility effigy.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-California Institute of Tecnology; Flickr/2di7 & titanio44

Trippy mesa

In 2017, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter looked down and snapped this image of a bizarre-looking formation in a region known as Noctis Labyrinthus, which translates to "labyrinth of the night." The wavy areas around this mesa are sand dunes.

"Heavily eroded, with clusters of boulders and sand dunes on its surface, this layered mesa is probably comprised of sedimentary deposits that are being exhumed as it erodes," NASA says.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

A bright light on Mars' horizon

NASA's Curiosity rover sent back a curious photo in 2014 showing a blip of light on the horizon of Mars. The image excited UFO fans, who speculated about the light's source, wondering if it might be evidence of alien activity.

NASA scientist Doug Ellison rained on the extraterrestrial parade with the explanation that the blip was likely caused by a cosmic ray hit, the result of high-energy particles flying through space.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL

A piece of a Mars rover

The Mars Curiosity rover has been at the center of quite a few unusual-object sightings on the Red Planet. A famous incident occurred in 2012 when the rover noticed a shiny object on the ground that didn't match its surroundings. Speculation ranged from jokes about Jimmy Hoffa's cufflink to it being an AOL CD. The explanation turned out to be pretty benign when NASA announced the object was a small plastic piece of the rover itself that had fallen off.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mini meteorite

In October 2016, NASA's Curiosity rover spotted a weird little iron meteorite during its explorations around the base of Mount Sharp in the Gale crater on Mars. The rock would look small sitting in the palm of your hand, but the rover's close-up view shows the intricacies of the meteorite's surface. Researchers named the meteorite "Egg Rock."

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Photo by: NASA

A closer look at the shiny object

That weird shiny object spotted by NASA's Curiosity rover had an anticlimactic explanation. It was just a shred of plastic from the rover itself. This close-up image comes from the rover's ChemCam and helped NASA scientists determine the origin of the Martian interloper. NASA described it as "likely benign," which should leave the door open just enough for us to image the presence of a human-hungry alien race hiding out on the Red Planet.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Strange, deep pit

NASA isn't offering any definitive answers on this odd round pit seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2017, but the circular formation is likely a collapse pit or an impact crater. 

The pit is located in the region of the planet's south pole. The late-summer, low-sun timing of the image really makes the circle stand out from the surrounding landscape.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Female statue on Mars?

NASA's Spirit rover delivered an image in 2007 showing a view of craggy little rock formations across the surface of Mars. One dramatically shaded formation stood out in the form of what looked like a little walking humanoid (either that or Bigfoot).

Popular UFO blog UFO Sightings Daily ran with speculation that the rock formation is a female figure likely made by aliens. The Planetary Society was quick to call the object an optical illusion and another excellent example of pareidolia, the tendency for our minds to assign familiar patterns to random shapes or sounds.

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Photo by: NASA

Another woman on Mars

There's more than one woman-shaped rock on Mars. This image from the Mars Curiosity rover excited alien theorists earlier in 2015. The small, shadowy object inside the red circle does look a little bit like a statuette of a lady in a dress. All it takes is a strong imagination.

"It's really easy to pick out rocks or other things that look like something else in pictures like this," NASA media-relations specialist Guy Webster told CNET.

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Photo by: JPL/NASA/Circle added by Eric Mack/CNET

Crab monster creeps on Mars

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover snapped a photo that could have blended in with a hundred other Mars photos back in July 2015. However, this particular photo earned itself a measure of infamy with a Facebook group enhanced a close-up of one tiny piece of the picture and unveiled what looked like a weird crab monster hiding out in the shadows. It could also pass as Cthulhu.

Ultimately, the crab creature of Mars is just a fun interplay between light and shadow. It's still just a rock formation at heart.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Not a Sasquatch skull

It's fun to imagine what aliens on Mars might look like if they were real. You might conjure up images of big heads and large, black eyes, or perhaps something with crazy tentacles and sharp teeth. UFO enthusiasts imagined a bigger, hairier version of alien life when they spotted what looked like a Sasquatch skull among the landscape debris on the Red Planet.

The image comes from NASA's Curiosity rover from early 2016. Squint and you can imagine the random rock looking a bit like a skull with a round dome and a large eye socket. Is it really a Bigfoot skull? No. It's still just a rock, but hopefully it will inspire some fun sci-fi stories about the great Sasquatch of Mars.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, red circle added by CNET

An ancient god's face

On the left is a cropped view of an image from the Mars Opportunity rover. On the right is a Neo-Assyrian attendant god statue from the British Museum. Notice a little resemblance? So did some UFO fans, who brought attention to the face-like rock found on the Red Planet.

As with all Mars rocks that look like Earth objects, it's really a combination of human imagination and fortuitous light rather than a sign of an alien civilization with a penchant for carving sculptures.

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Photo by: NASA/British Museum

Remnants of a lander

The European Space Agency's ExoMars mission suffered a setback when its Schiaparelli lander crash-landed Mars in October 2016. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took this photo of the crash site to help ESA investigators work out what happened to the ill-fated lander. The large dark spot shows the impact site. Other highlighted areas show the front heatshield, parachute and rear heatshield.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Mars rover landing hardware

These distinctive-looking round shapes are found in the Eagle Crater on Mars. Take a close look at the one on the upper right-hand side. Notice a small dot inside? That's the lander that carried the Mars Opportunity rover down to the planet's surface in 2004. A small dot towards the lower left-hand corner of the image is the lander's backshell and parachute.

NASA shared this fresh view of the landing gear in the crater in April 2017.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Mars' south pole

This strange landscape photo might remind you of worm tracks or some strange ant farm. What you're actually seeing here is a 2016 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter view of Mars' south pole.

"The polar cap is made from carbon dioxide (dry ice), which does not occur naturally on the Earth. The circular pits are holes in this dry ice layer that expand by a few meters each Martian year," NASA explains.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Kissy 'alien face'

Pucker up! This Mars rock looks like it wants to lay a kiss on you. The unusual formation has the appearance of a human-like face with an eye, nose, forehead, chin and smooch-ready lips. 

Alien fans spotted the rock while looking through images sent back by NASA's Mars Curiosity rover in late 2016. It's a fun formation, but it's not a sign of alien life on the Red Planet.

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Photo by: NASA

Finding alien 'faces' on Mars

With a little time and effort, anyone can find rock formations that look like human or alien faces on Mars. Here are two "faces" with their features pointed out. This image comes from NASA's Curiosity rover, which snapped the landscape view in late 2016.

All it takes is some imagination to harness the human power of pareidolia, a phenomenon that causes people to see recognizable faces and shapes in unrelated objects.

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Photo by: NASA/JPL/Text by Amanda Kooser/CNET

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