The planet Mars has provided conspiracy theorists and pseudoscientists with a bewildering array of stories for well over a hundred years.
When Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli first suggested in 1877 there may be “man-made” canals on Mars, our knowledge of the Red Planet was extremely limited to say the least.
Since the canals, we’ve had glass tubes, lost cities, pyramids and the infamous “Face on Mars”. Some of the wackier Mars conspiracies would have us believing the planet is littered with old Nazi military hardware and even dinosaurs.
The majority of these absurd claims are based on faulty interpretations of low resolution photography, but others are nothing more than wilful hoaxing and Photoshop tampering. It seems that where outlandish Mars theories are concerned, it is the planet that just keeps on giving.
With the August 5th landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover – part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission (MSL), the chances of finding new anomalies have multiplied dramatically. Indeed, we only needed to wait mere minutes for the first sensational headlines to appear from excitable “researchers”.
The Mars Blob
Seconds after touching down at the Gale Crater landing site, Curiosity fired off a number of low resolution black and white photos from its rear-mounted “Hazcam” camera.
The photos were relayed via the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) back to earth, where NASA scientists could examine them.
One of these images showed the rocky landscape around the rover, along with a blob directly on the horizon in the middle of the image. When the MRO made another pass a couple of hours later, Curiosity sent off a new batch of photos to the mission controllers in Pasadena. The image with the rocky landscape was again present, but now the strange blob was nowhere to be seen.
Almost immediately, speculation mounted as to why the blob was present in the first image but not the second. While some people suggested this was evidence of a UFO or other Martian intelligence, somewhat saner people speculated it may in fact have had something to do with the spacecraft that had carried the rover down to the surface.
The “Sky Crane” craft gently lowered Curiosity to the surface on a tether from a height of 20 metres, in order not to create a dust cloud that could damage the rover’s instruments. Once the rover was deposited on the surface, the Sky Crane detached from the tether and flew 650 metres away before crashing to the surface (1).
Could the blob have been the dust cloud created by the crash?
The Sky Crane Debate
It seems like a logical conclusion to make, but rather unhelpfully in this case, a Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) engineer told the LA Times that this was highly unlikely.
A huge set of variables and the fact the lens was only open for 200 milliseconds would make such an event “an insane coincidence”, the engineer told the newspaper (2).
He speculated the blob, or blotch, was nothing more than dust on the lens, but the Hazcam camera is a twin camera, and both lenses captured the exact same image. Meaning of course that dust on the lens couldn’t be the answer.
An “expert” declaring the most obvious answer unlikely was all that was needed for the speculation to be ramped up on many fringe websites. Thankfully however, the scientists at NASA and JPL know what they are doing, and didn’t have to rely on speculation or guesswork in order to answer the mystery of the disappearing blotch.
The following day, the team received a high resolution image of the landing site from the MRO. The image, named jokingly by the team as the “crime scene” photo, displayed not only the rover, but all of the other related sections of the descent phase.
The parachute that carried Curiosity down to the surface was lying to the southwest; the heat shield lay to the southeast and the Sky Crane lay 2000ft away to the northwest – exactly in the direction the Hazcam camera was pointing when it captured the image with the blotch.
The crime scene photo also showed that the Sky Crane had kicked up an enormous amount of dust when it crash landed, making it proof positive this is what must have caused the strange blotch in the first place.
The Face on Mars Conspiracy
That this mystery has been answered so quickly is something to be thankful for. The infamous Face on Mars image, captured by the Viking 1 mission to Mars in 1976, endured as a mystery for more than 22 years!
The Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft provided conclusive proof that the mysterious feature in the Cydonia region of Mars was nothing more than an enormous rock formation. When viewed with high resolution equipment, the formation looks nothing like a face, and further imagery taken in 2001 underlines this.
Of course, none of this has stopped the pseudoscientists from peddling their wares; they’ve been making a career out of fooling the gullible for too long to stop now. With the prospect of thousands more images being captured by Curiosity during its two year mission, one can only wonder what they will come up with next.
One thing we will be looking forward to is stunning imagery of the Martian landscape, and hopefully some answers to the many questions about the possibility that Mars may once have harboured life – the primary goal of the Mars Exploration Program (4).
We will be watching closely!