Emily LakdawallaMay 30, 2013

Finding faces and animals on Mars

Yesterday, a news organization sought comment from The Planetary Society about the "lizard on Mars." I'm not going to dignify the lizard or rat on Mars with a link to any one story -- feel free to Google around to find images of the blobby thing, along with stories about it that mostly seem not to take it seriously.

Why am I even mentioning it, then? It's because I'm seeking your help in doing something both funny and helpful about this kind of problem. Seeing faces and other apparent shapes where none actually exist is a natural byproduct of the way the human brain works, something called pareidolia. In the past, I've combated strange pareidolia by addressing how a specific object cannot possibly be what its "discoverers" claim it to be. My favorite one of these has to be the teeny little Sasquatch on Mars:

Teeny Little Bigfoot on Mars
Teeny Little Bigfoot on Mars This is a tiny detail from a panorama taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit on sol 1,366-1,369 (6-9 November 2007) of its position on the eastern edge of Home Plate. NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / Emily Lakdawalla

But I can't write a blog post for every Sasquatch or lizard that shows up; it's like playing whack-a-mole. Every time you whack one, another several pop up to taunt you. A much more effective response is the one put together for unmannedspaceflight.com years ago by Eric Hartwell in response to the Sasquatch discovery. In addition to Bigfoot, he found a Tiki head, a human skull, an eagle, and my favorite: a "high-speed turtle." This photo is the all-time number-one most downloaded image from unmannedspaceflight.com.

"Bigfoot's Buddies" in Spirit's West Valley Panorama
"Bigfoot's Buddies" in Spirit's West Valley Panorama Stop the presses! If you take a closer look at Spirit's West Valley Panorama, you can find more of Bigfoot's buddies. The polar bear and duck are neat, but my favorite is the high-speed turtle zooming through the dust ... NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / Eric Hartwell

But that was nearly six years ago now. In the spirit of Eric's "Bigfoot's Buddies" image, I am challenging you readers to find all of the animate and inanimate objects visible in this Curiosity panorama. It was taken in the local afternoon, so there are nice shadows that obligingly pretend to be all kinds of interesting shapes. What do you see? Click through twice to enlarge it to its original glory, and feel free to stretch the bejeezus out of the contrast in order to make all of the wildlife and alien artifacts in this image* more visible. Send me an email with a cropped image (and tell me where in the original picture it came from) telling me what interesting shapes you find, and I'll post a montage of my favorites. Your prize for being selected for my montage is fame forever, in the form of having your name or pseudonym listed in my blog entry.

Late-afternoon panorama, Curiosity sol 50
Late-afternoon panorama, Curiosity sol 50 Curiosity took the photos for this Mastcam-34 panorama of her surroundings at about 3:00 in the afternoon, local time, on sol 50 (September 26, 2012). NASA / JPL / MSSS / Damia Bouic

 *Just in case it is not abundantly clear, I am joking about wildlife. Though not alien artifacts. There is, in fact, an enormous alien artifact in this image, namely the butt end of a gigantic rover that came from another planet.

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