Wood Plank Found on Mars?

by Nancy Atkinson on December 1, 2008

Panoramic image with "plank"-like rock. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

Over the long holiday weekend, Universe Today was flooded with emails from readers who asked us to comment on an image taken by the Opportunity rover that appears to show a plank of wood laying on the surface of Mars. The image, above, (here’s the full resolution image) was taken in May of 2004, about four and a half years ago, in the early part of the Mars Exploration Rover mission. Since the image appears to have caused a bit of excitement across the internet recently, I decided to contact Dr. Jim Bell from Cornell University, who is also the lead scientist for the Panoramic cameras on the rovers. Bell was surprised to hear from me about the image, but happy to offer some insight. “My first reaction,” he said, “is that it’s delightful that there is such public interest in images from Mars.” Bell agreed that, indeed, it does look like a wooden plank. But does that mean it is a piece of wood on Mars? Sadly, no, says Bell.

"Plank" crop image.

“What you’re seeing is a piece of flat, platy, layered sulfur-rich outcrop rock like we’ve seen almost everywhere the Opportunity rover has been in Meridiani Planum,” said Bell. “Sometimes, like in this case, those flat, platy rocks have been tilted or dislodged, this one probably from the forces associated with the huge impact crater that formed nearby.”

See this image of several rocks in the area that have been tilted:

More tilted rocks.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

More tilted rocks. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

“And this one’s being viewed edge-on,” Bell said, of the rock in question. “That edge-on view, combined with the layered nature of these rocks in general gives the surface a sort of grainy texture. So, indeed, it looks like a wooden plank on Mars.”

So, could it maybe be wood? “No, sadly,” said Bell. “I say ‘sadly’ because personally I think it would be incredible and spectacular to find a wooden plank on Mars! However, in this case, it’s just a trick of the lighting and the viewing angle.”

This image, as other Mars images that have created hubbub and speculation, is another example of our human tendency to see familiar shapes in random patterns. (Phil Plait talks about this pareidolia here.)

In fact, I spent most of the morning scanning through MER images from May 15-29, 2004 to see if I could find more images of this “wooden plank.” There’s plenty, as all of the MER images from all five cameras for both rovers are freely available on the rover website. I believe I found an image of the same rock, taken from the “backside” or opposite view: (see below)

Opportunity rover image from Sol 111.  Credit: NASA/JPL

Opportunity rover image from Sol 111. Credit: NASA/JPL

Here, it appears to be a rock, a tilted rock, but it doesn’t stand out because from this view, the lighting doesn’t make the rock appear as dark as the original view. Again, I’m not sure this is the same rock, but there are several images of tilted rocks in this region, and if this isn’t the same one, it’s one very much like it.

Here’s another image of rocks that have a similar “grainy” look to them:

Rocks with grainy surface.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

Rocks with grainy surface. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

For those of you who remain convinced that NASA is covering up some sort of “major” finding here, just remember a few things:

1. This image was released back in May of 2004, just a couple of days after it was taken by Opportunity. MER Principal Investigator Steve Squyres made the decision before the mission started to release all the images taken by the rovers and make them freely available to anyone. If NASA was hiding something, they wouldn’t have posted this image, as well as all the other images of the area that are available. Please, go look at them all if you have any doubt.

2. The best planetary geologists on Earth have looked at this image, and have all concluded this is just a rock. It’s an interesting rock, but a rock nonetheless. Think again if you believe some internet sleuths out there have a better understanding of this object than highly trained and experienced planetary scientists.

3. If this object really was a piece of wood, NASA and all the scientists on the MER mission would probably be shouting from the rooftops. As Jim Bell said, it would be incredible and spectacular, and don’t think for a minute these scientists wouldn’t be jumping for joy if they found something as amazing as log on Mars.

And in case you’re wondering about the other interesting feature in the image, the shiny object in the background is Opportunity’s heat shield.


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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