Wood Plank Found on Mars?

by Nancy Atkinson on December 1, 2008

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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.

About 

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

jayfb December 2, 2008 at 3:24 AM

So, what’s next? Fridge on Mars?

Jon December 2, 2008 at 10:29 AM

Oh wow a plank!!!

fsm December 2, 2008 at 3:32 AM

The explanation is simple – its the Captain’s log.. :-)

jayfb December 2, 2008 at 4:05 AM

OMG, you see the white thing on the left? I resized it and yes! It is a fridge on Mars?
http://img242.imageshack.us/my.php?image=clipboard02as5.jpg

jayfb December 2, 2008 at 7:42 AM

Keith, I strongly believe the Synagogue will strongly disagree with the plank being a property of the Vatican ;)

TD December 2, 2008 at 11:21 AM

The question I’d like to see addressed is whether there is any connection to biology to the “Blueberries”. I’ve read that they are composed of at least some hematite, but not that they’re 100% – are they? Could they be a result of a biological process? Even an ancient one? Many features of them suggest a biological process was involved.

marcellus December 3, 2008 at 12:28 AM

I think it is the same plank that was photographed on Mount Ararat.

Irwin Weisberg December 2, 2008 at 11:06 PM

OK, so this Plank theory isn’t constant. But how do you know it isn’t from the captain’s log of the Enterprise, from some old Startrek episode whose broadcast has finally reached Mars?

not December 3, 2008 at 1:26 AM

Mount Ararat found on Mars?

NLane December 3, 2008 at 8:29 AM

Cut it out guys. Space is no joke; it is actually out there!
NLane

Graeme December 3, 2008 at 2:49 AM

Yep, That’s a plank alright! It was orginally part of a bridge that got washed away down a canal during one of those martian storms…

Marco December 3, 2008 at 7:33 AM

TD:

Deer droppings are also the same size and shape as blueberries. The color and, likely, the taste is different. Maybe those ‘blueberries’ on Mars are fossilized deer droppings, making them indisputably biological in origin. If they are deer poop, then that means there is a high probability of antelope and buffalo poop piles too (as pointed out in the famous American folk song). Proving the existence of Martian deer would be a huge boon to cheap human spcae travel. Within a week or two there would be fleets of space pickup trucks, with raygun racks in the back indows, as hunters headed for Mars.

Marco December 3, 2008 at 8:53 AM

If there is to be no humor in space, then it can stay out there while we stay in here. Humor is a great human gift. Until we bring back some Martian blueberries and prove they aren’t deer poop, we can laugh about the possibilities. Once we do bring some back and prove they aren’t, then we can start the conspiracy theories about why NASA is denying the Martian Deer Poop Theory (MDPT). If the MDPT is what is takes to get us to Mars faster, then poop on.

maudyfish December 3, 2008 at 12:04 PM

Hope that fridge has beer!! Ice cold!!

Michael December 3, 2008 at 12:15 PM

And let us not forget to remove the plank from our eyes before we remove the speck from another’s.

Bobby December 5, 2008 at 5:05 PM

Pretend for a second that the object in the picture really is a piece of wood. Can we have a show of hands of all the planetary scientists who would come out and say that it is a piece of wood. Anybody? Didn’t think so.

OK now continue pretending that it really is a piece of wood, how many planetary scientists would identify it as a rock no matter what it really is? All of you? Unanimous then.

So regardless of whether the object really is a piece of wood or not the planetary scientists are all going to say it is a rock.

OK, suppose one of the pictures had what appeared to be a rectangular piece of wood with the words “Burma Shave” painted on it. Show of hands of all the Planetary Scientists who would explain that away as a rock weathered by Martian sandstorms. Pretty much all of you still huh?

I’ve seen a lot of rocks in my life – I suspect that so have the rest of the non planetary scientists reading this.

OK, all the normal people: how many of you have ever seen a natural rock that looked like a statue of a girl, or one that looked like a wooden plank? Show of hands – anybody – even a drunk, seriously anyone?

So my question to the planetary scientists is why should anyone listen to you guys?

Owain December 11, 2008 at 8:12 AM

Because we’re planetary scientists! QED

green card December 24, 2008 at 1:22 PM

Why this web site do not have other languages support?

ish December 29, 2008 at 3:18 PM

Could you tell who cut the two ends of that sulfur-rich outcropping ?

Chris January 4, 2009 at 9:58 PM

Well ya know, its nice that this gets attention, but had they done their job they would have taken a thorough color and minerological analysis of what it was made of, instead it was simply ignored for the most part. The reason they are not shouting from the roof tops is because they just assumed they knew what it was, for all they know it could actually be a log, but the proper science was not done to be sure.

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