Curiosity sees strange heights on Mars

This image was taken by Mast Camera (Mastcam) aboard NASA’s Curiosity spacecraft at Sol 3474 (2022-05-15 13:35:22 UTC). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In August 2012, the Curiosity rover landed at Gale Crater on Mars and began exploring the surface for signs of past life. The rover made some profound discoveries during that time, including evidence that the crater was once the bottom of a huge lake and discovered several spikes of methane. The rover also took pictures of several interesting terrain features, many of which went viral after the images were shared with the public. These images have proven time and time again that the tradition of seeing faces or patterns in random objects (also known as pareidolia) is alive and well when it comes to Mars.

On Sol day 3474 (May 15, 2022), the Curiosity rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) captured a particularly interesting image showing spikes protruding from Earth. The forks are likely material that survived the erosion of the surrounding sedimentary rocks, which is consistent with other evidence obtained by Curiosity showing how common (and still present) Gale crater erosion and sedimentation. However, the pareidolia crowd (speaking of the “Doorway” trick) is sure to have a field day with this one.

This image was taken by Mast Camera (Mastcam) aboard NASA’s Curiosity spacecraft at Sol 3474 (2022-05-15 13:35:22 UTC). By May 26, the image started making the rounds after the SETI Institute tweeted about it and provided a possible explanation (say, sane and rational) for how the feature formed. As they explained, the spikes were likely “brushing filings of old fractures in sedimentary rock” that were left over when the surrounding rock (made of a softer material) eroded. There are two possible mechanisms for this.

As scientists have learned, thanks largely to evidence provided by Curiosity, Gale Crater was once the bottom of a lake in which liquid water flowed. This coincided with the Noachian period (about 4.1 to 3.7 billion years ago) when Mars had a much denser, warmer environment, and water flowed on its surface. The movement of water in the Gale Crater has led to the formation of sedimentary features, such as the layers of rock that make up the base of Mount Sharp. While Mars does not experience water-borne erosion today, it still experiences massive dust storms that can erode sedimentary rock faces.

However, the tweet has inspired a flurry of suggestions and pet theories. Particularly interesting is that they can be fulgarites, tubes of glass found in sandy areas that form when lightning strikes and cause silica sand and rock to coalesce. While this is a technical possibility, it is highly unlikely. While some research suggests that lightning can occur during dust storms (the result of atmospheric particles generating static electricity), lightning has never been observed on Mars.

What’s more, Mars’ atmosphere is too thin to hold the voltages needed to generate the kinds of powerful lightning strikes that cause fulgures here on Earth. Finally, the fact that Curiosity found this feature indicates that it is statistically significant, which is not supported by either observational evidence or theoretical research (which indicates that it is uncommon). In short, any lightning that could occur on Mars would be too rare and too weak to account for a feature like this.

Smart money currently seems likely to have this advantage due to wear. But that is unlikely to discourage a torrent of crazy speculation and ideas. It’s an enduring tradition when it comes to Mars. Examples go back to Schiaparelli’s “Canali” features, Viking 1’s orbital image of “the face of Mars,” “human,” “plank,” “Jelly Donut,” “dinosaur skull,” and many, many other instances where people saw things that weren’t there.

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