Who is that amid the rocks? (All photos except noted credited to NASA/JPL).
Something strange is happening on the surface of Mars. The above image has circulated around the Internet the past few weeks. Taken from the Spirit rover, the panorama shows a vast, Martian landscape. The close up inset above appears to show a vague figure. What gives? Are there, perhaps, a tiny civilization of Bigfoots (Or is it Bigmen?) mocking our rovers?
The mind has an affinity for spotting faces and human like figures out of the chaos. Look up at the floating cumulus on a cloudy summer afternoon, and soon faces will appear. The man in the moon face is another common illusion:
Of course the earthward facing side of the moon only vaguely resembles a man; a more skeptical scrutiny reveals only a very basic eye-nose-mouth configuration. As far as I know, no one has suggested artificial design for the moon; the outline is merely happenstance.
Incidentally, none other than Carl Sagan took the idea of life on Mars seriously. Prior to the Viking Landings in the 70s, he conducted tests with a video camera and box turtles in the Mojave desert. The idea was to see if large life forms could be picked out moving against the desert floor. This kind of forward thinking illustrates that life on other worlds may well take on forms that we cannot immediately recognize. But alas, no Martian turtles were found.
And of course who can forget the sensational “face” on Mars? first photographed by a companion Viking Orbiter, The Mars Global Suveryor later revealed it to be nothing more than a trick of the shadow angle:
Of course, hoax purists will state that the government is merely concealing the truth. While its comforting to think that government organizations could be well coordinated enough to do so, the opposite tends to be the truth. If a full fledged, civilization, even an extinct one, were discovered on Mars, swarms of archeologists would descend. Think 2001: a Space Odyssey.
So what is it? Like the much touted “face”, I would say the solution is very similar. It helps to look at the larger panorama that it was extracted from; (The file is large, but trust me, worth the download!)
Can you see Bigfoot? (Hint: to avoid nausea, download and enlarge!) He’s in the lower left hand corner, near a dune coming over a ridge. Of course, it only appears to be a ridge… much of Mars is a very monochromatic world. Shades a rusty orange on a rusty orange background prevail. Shadows and outlines stand out in stark contrast to such a landscape. What looks like a ridge might actually be a crevasse, and vice versa. Scientists first realized this would pose a problem to becoming mobile during the Mars Pathfinder Mission in the 90s. Stereo images 3D, or anaglyphs, were created to show the “drivers” the layout of the Martian terrain. And they looked cool, too! When we notice the shadow angle, it looks like the sun is off to the right, which is very telling. (Remember, this is a 360 degree panorama!) What appears to be a vaguely humanoid outcropping is very probably a shadowed indentation in the rock. Other faces/stickmen abound in this and any picture; take a moment and scan the above at high magnification; soon, more faces and bigfoots will appear!
Finally, another Martian anecdote comes to mind. When the first pictures of the Martian surface were sent back by the Viking Lander in 1976, a letter “B” was noticed amid the rocks. Was this an example of Martian graffitti by a race that somehow developed a phonetic alphabet somehow independent of Earth? Of course it later proved to be a trick of light. However, with a wry wit, one of the engineers proposed that the “B” had stood for Barsoom!