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Space Slug? Mars Looks Like an Alien Creature in Wild NASA Image

It's not a "giant, pulsating amoeba," but it sure looks like one.

nasamroanaglyph
This processed anaglyph image of dunes in an impact crater helps researchers understand the 3D terrain of Mars. 
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

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

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter sends back oodles of stunning views of the red planet, too many for me to keep up with. I rely on the folks at the University of Arizona who run the MRO HiRise camera to call out the good stuff, like a truly wild image that makes Mars look like it's hosting a sci-fi alien critter.

The HiRise team tweeted the eye-catching image last week, titling it "HiRise 3D: Stranger Things" and writing, "Even without any 3D glasses, this anaglyph looks supremely bizarre. Space slug? Giant, pulsating amoeba? Gomtuu? Or just a dune field in an impact crater?"

That Gomtuu name drop might need an explainer. It's a reference to an alien spaceship/life form from the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Once you see it, you'll appreciate it.

The HiRise team's final suggestion ("just a dune field in an impact crater") is indeed the right description for what you're seeing. So why does it look so psychedelic? This isn't quite how it would look to the human eye. The MRO image is an anaglyph that has been color-processed. It's designed to help researchers see Mars terrain in 3D. 

Intrigued? Dig out some red and blue 3D glasses and go explore the special HiRise collection of anaglyph images. Mars is full of mountains, canyons, plains, craters and dunes. You'll get a sense of the variations on the planet's surface.

The undulating dunes in the image aren't actually screaming-red, but the heightened reality of the anaglyph makes it feel like you could reach out and touch a textured piece of Mars -- or a dry, grainy space slug. Whatever you prefer.