In September 2012, a photograph snapped by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity caught the attention of Internet sleuths everywhere. This picture appears to sh
In September 2012, a photograph snapped by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity caught the attention of Internet sleuths everywhere. This picture appears to show a large rat hiding among some Martian rocks, and after its release it quickly went viral.
The image of what looks like a camouflaged rodent was spotted by a UFO enthusiast inspecting a panoramic shot taken at the “Rocknest” site.
“It’s a cute rodent on Mars,” wrote ufologist Scott Waring , on his UFO Sightings Daily website. “Note its lighter-color upper and lower eyelids, its nose and cheek areas, its ear, its front leg and stomach.”
Over the next several years, Waring continued to spot artifacts in imagery captured by NASA landers, which he believed had been left behind by an ancient civilization that once existed on the Red Planet.
The artifacts Waring identified on his website included a large Roman-style arch, a fossilized tree stump, the remains of a crashed spacecraft, massive skyscrapers and the carved outline of a woman’s body in the Martian rock bed.
With respect to the rodent, Waring suggested that perhaps NASA flew the rodent there secretly as part of an experiment to evaluate Mars’s capacity to support life. This assertion of course makes little sense, because it doesn’t explain how the rat could have survived the 253-day trip from Earth to Mars, or how it could have been moving around on Mars with no breathable air.
After a while, even some who were initially interested in his work grew disenchanted with Waring. In response to the growing criticism, he shut down his website and disappeared from public view in 2017.
In defense of Waring, a cursory examination of the photographic evidence he analysed does seem to reveal the images he claims to see. And he is hardly the only one to report anomalies on Mars, which at first glance all look to have been intelligently designed.
At various times, space aficionados pouring over photographs taken on the Martian surface have identified objects that look like rusted machinery, broken pottery, carved stone figures, bones, skulls, helmets, and statues of people or animals.
And then of course there’s the infamous Face on Mars. This particular image, which was captured from space by the Viking 1 orbiter in 1976, helped spawn a whole cottage industry of researchers seeking (and often claiming to find) evidence of ancient ruins left behind by an ancient but now extinct civilization.
Pareidolia vs. Paranoia
The individuals who identify these oddities aren’t crazy, nor are they simply making things up to get attention. Many have legitimate scientific or technical credentials. But regardless of their training or background, or the purity of their intentions, these men and women may be falling victim to a phenomenon known as pareidolia. This label describes the tendency of the human brain to search for meaningful patterns in all types of visual images, and to actually see such patterns even when they aren’t there.
“Pareidolia is a normal neuroperceptual phenomenon,” explains Dr. Kang Lee, a neuroscientist from the University of Toronto. Dr. Lee has sponsored research that reveals how the brain is hard-wired to see hidden shapes in unremarkable objects or random imagery. “It happens in auditory and tactile domains as well … [pareidolia] helps us to be super alert to things … and thus is evolutionarily advantageous.”
Pareidolia may indeed explain many of the amazing wonders observers claim to see when looking at photographs taken on Mars. But it is also a convenient catch-all rationalization of the type that skeptics frequently rely on to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit their narrow worldviews.
It may be safe to conclude that there are no rats running around on Mars, since its climate would make that impossible. And there is no doubt that rocks with funny shapes can easily be misidentified. But claims that geometrical regularities can be spotted on images taken from orbit above Mars aren’t as easy for the open-minded to discount. There is plenty of dispute about whether natural processes can create such shapes, and if so how often they can create them.
What are the Mars Anomalies, Really?
It is not well known by the general public. But in the Cydonia region, where the supposedly debunked Face on Mars sits, there are actually several features on the landscape that show signs of geometrical regularity, which is considered one of the distinctive markers of intelligent design.
These features include the so-called D&M Pyramid , a five-sided figure first discovered by researchers Vince DiPiertro and Greg Molenaar; an area called “ the City ,” which contains more than a dozen pyramidal shapes; the Cliff, a long, linear rock mesa that looks like a giant ‘one’ from overhead; and the Tholus, a precisely circular mound in an isolated region that does not appear to be the result of either volcanic activity or meteor impact.
Adding further intrigue, Mars anomaly researchers say these objects have been arranged on the Cydonia plateau in a way that creates a larger, more comprehensive geometrical pattern.
The Mars anomaly research community has spent decades investigating these unusual features. Individual researchers, most of whom have some type of scientific training, have written dozens of papers and made hundreds of presentations explaining their reasons for concluding these landforms are not 100-percent natural. It is the existence of multiple anomalies here that has led to so much focus on the Cydonia area, which would continue to be studied intensely even if the debunking of the Face was accepted as genuine ( which it isn’t by most alternative researchers).
Dismissing such features as examples of pareidolia, or as “tricks of light and shadows” to use NASA’s terminology, may in the end prove to be the correct judgment. Nature may be more capable of producing geometrically suggestive shapes than many believe, even in arrangements that appear to have mathematical significance. But the only way to resolve such mysteries with complete certainty is to send manned missions there to examine these anomalies up close.
Pareidolia is a legitimate phenomenon with real explanatory power. But if the theory is applied too broadly or with an assumption of infallibility, it may obfuscate more than it enlightens.
Overall, the alleged anomalies observed in Martian photographs are a mixed bag. While some of the claims made are worthy of being scoffed at, in other instances there is enough ambiguity in the images to make the case for further investigation. Without such an examination, pareidolia will remain a hypothesis rather than an established fact.
If a manned mission is someday dispatched to Mars, what it discovers may surprise and disappoint the believers. Then again, it may surprise and disappoint the skeptics instead.
By Nathan Falde