Science

NASA Curiosity rover snaps fun face-like Mars rock formation

The "Old Martian in the Mountain" resembles a famous Earth landmark that fell apart.

This cliff on Mars sports a face-like profile when seen in the right light by NASA's Curiosity rover on Dec. 7, 2021.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

I have experience with spotting "faces" in random rocks on Mars, so I can say with some confidence that a fresh image from NASA's Curiosity Mars rover is a fine example of pareidolia, the human tendency to spot familiar objects in random shapes.

Scott Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, highlighted a Curiosity image from Dec. 7 in a rover mission update on Thursday. The view shows a scenic cliff that resembles a human face in profile with a heavy brow, a long nose, lips and a chin.

Guzewich called the formation the "Old Martian in the Mountain," a reference to the Old Man of the Mountain, a face-shaped series of cliffs that once stood as a landmark in New Hampshire before collapsing in 2003.  

The last I checked in with NASA's Curiosity rover, it was posing for a spectacular selfie in the Gale Crater on Mars. In the background was a spot called the "Maria Gordon Notch," a U-shaped passageway the rover will take to move farther up the slope of Mount Sharp, the crater's central peak. The "face" formation appeared on one side of that notch. 

The image represents fortuitous lighting combined with a good camera angle that makes the face-like shapes in the rock show out. Curiosity will be studying the cliff wall to learn more about its composition. 

The face isn't the work of artistic Martians looking to carve a monument to humanity, but it's a delightful reminder of how a distant planet can echo familiar sights from Earth.