No, a Dinosaur Skull Hasn’t Been Found on Mars: Why We See Familiar Looking Objects on the Red Planet

What is up with the fossils on Mars? Found – a dinosaur skull on Mars? Discovered – a rat, squirrel or gerbil on Mars? In background of images from Curiosity, vertebrae from some extinct Martian species? And the human skull, half buried in photos from Opportunity Rover. All the images are made of stone from the ancient past and this is also what is called Pareidolia. They are figments of our imaginations, and driven by our interest to be there – on Mars – and to know that we are not alone. Altogether, they make a multitude of web pages and threads across the internet.

Is she or isn’t she, a face on the red planet Mars? Discovered in the thousands of photos transmitted to Earth by the Viking orbiter in the 1970s, the arrival of Mars Global Surveyor included Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) which revealed details that put to rest the face of Cydonia. Actually, it is alive and well for many. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL- Viking/MGS, GIF – Judy Schmidt)

Rock-hounds and Martian paleontologists, if only amateur or retired, have found a bounty of fascinating rocks nestled among the rocks on Mars. There are impressive web sites dedicated to each’s eureka moment, dissemination among enthusiasts and presentation for discussion.

At left, MSL's Curiosity landed not far from a sight hard to leave - Yellow Knife including sight "John Klein". Inset: this authors speculative thought - mud chips? At right, is Mars enthusiasts' Bone on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL, Wikimedia)
At left, MSL’s Curiosity landed not far from a sight hard to leave – Yellow Knife including sight “John Klein”. Inset: this authors speculative thought – mud chips? At right, is Mars enthusiasts’ Bone on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL, Wikimedia)

NASA scientists have sent the most advanced robotic vehicles to the surface of Mars, to the most fascinating and diverse areas that are presently reachable with our technology and landing skills. The results have been astounding scientifially but also in terms of mysteries and fascination with the strange, alien formations. Some clearly not unlike our own and others that must be fossil remnants from a bygone era – so it seems.

Be sure to explore, through the hyperlinks, many NASA, NASA affiliates’ and third party websites – embedded throughout this article. Also, links to specific websites are listed at the end of the article.

The Dinosaur skull on Mars is actually dated from Martian Sol 297 (June 7, 2013). The imager used to return this and an historic array of landscapes, close-ups and selfies is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). MSL Curiosity includes the NAVCAM, cameras for navigation, HAZCAM, MASTCAM,and MARDI cameras. Together, the array of images is historic and overwhelming raising more questions than answers including speculative and imaginative "discoveries." (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL)
The Dinosaur skull on Mars is actually dated from Martian Sol 297 (June 7, 2013). The imager used to return this was the MASTCAM and an historic array of landscapes, close-ups and selfies has been produced by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Other MSL Curiosity cameras are the NAVCAM, cameras for navigation, HAZCAM and MARDI camera. The array of images is historic and overwhelming raising more questions than answers including speculative and imaginative “discoveries.” (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL)

The centerpiece of recent interest is the dinosaur skull protruding from the Martian regolith, teeth still embedded, sparkling efferdent white. There are no sockets for these teeth. Dinosaur dentures gave this senior citizen a few extra good years. The jaw line of the skull has no joint or connection point with the skull. So our minds make up the deficits, fill in the blanks and we agree with others and convince ourselves that this is a fossilized skull. Who knows how this animal could have evolved differently.

But evolve it did – within our minds. Referencing online dictionaries [ref], “Pareidolia is the imagined perception of a pattern (or meaning) where it does not actually exist, as in considering the moon to have human features.” I must admit that I do not seek out these “discoveries” on Mars but I enjoy looking at them and there are many scientists at JPL that have the same bent. Mars never fails to deliver and caters to everyone, but when skulls and fossils are seen, it is actually us catering to the everyday images and wishes we hold in our minds.

No one is left out of the imagery returned from the array of NASA's Martian assets in orbit.  Mars exhibits an incredible display of wind swept sand dunes (center photo). (Photo Credits: NASA, Paramount Pictures)
No one is left out of the imagery returned from the array of NASA’s Martian assets in orbit. Mars exhibits an incredible display of wind swept sand dunes (center photo). (Photo Credits: NASA, Paramount Pictures)

The “Rat on Mars” (main figure, top center) is actually quite anatomically complete and hunkered down, having taken its final gasps of air, eons ago, as some cataclysmic event tore the final vestiges of Earth-like atmosphere off the surface. It died where it once roamed and foraged for … nuts and berries? Surprisingly, no nuts have been found. Blueberries – yes – they are plentiful on Mars and could have been an excellent nutritional source for rats; high in iron and possibly like their Earthly counterpart, high in anti-oxidants.

The Blueberries of Mars are actually concretions of iron rich minerals from water - ground or standing pools - created over thousands of years during periodic epochs of wet climates on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL/Cornell)
The Blueberries of Mars are actually concretions of iron rich minerals from water – ground or standing pools – created over thousands of years during periodic epochs of wet climates on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL/Cornell)

The blueberries were popularized by Dr. Steve Squyres, the project scientist of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. Discovered in Eagle crater and across Meridiani Planum, “Blueberries” are spherules of concretions of iron rich minerals from water. It is a prime chapter in the follow-the-water story of Mars. And not far from the definition of Pareidolia, Eagle Crater refers to the incredible set of landing bounces that sent “Oppy” inside its capsule, surrounded by airbags on a hole-in-one landing into that little crater.

When the global dust storm cleared, Mariner 9's fist landfall was the tip of Olympus Mons, 90,000 feet above its base. Two decades later, Mars Global Surveyors laser altimeter data was used to computer generate this image. At left are sand dunes near the north pole were photographed in 2008 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (MROC). The sand dunes challenge scientists' understanding of Mars' geology and meterology while fueling speculation that such features are plants or trees on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL)
When the global dust storm cleared, Mariner 9’s first landfall was the tip of Olympus Mons, 90,000 feet above its base. Two decades later, Mars Global Surveyors laser altimeter data was used to computer generate this image(NASA Solar System Exploration page). At left are sand dunes near the north pole photographed in 2008 (APOD) by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera. The sand dunes challenge scientists’ understanding of Mars’ geology and meterology while fueling speculation that such features are plants or trees on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL)

Next, is the face of Mars of the Cydonia region (Images of Cydonia, Mars, NSSDC). As seen in the morphed images, above, the lower resolution Viking orbiter images presented Mars-o-philes clear evidence of a lost civilization. Then, Washington handed NASA several years of scant funding for planetary science, and not until Mars Global Surveyor, was the Face of Cydonia photographed again. The Mars Orbiter Camera from the University of Arizona delivered high resolution images that dismissed the notion of a mountain-sized carving. Nonetheless, this region of Mars is truly fascinating geologically and does not disappoint those in search of past civilizations.

At left, drawings by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli coinciding with Mars' close opposition with Earth in 1877. At right, the drawings of Percival Lowell who built the fine observatory in Flagstaff to support his interest in Mars and the search for a ninth planet. H.G. Wells published his book "War of the Worlds" in 1897. (Image Credits: Wikipedia)
At left, drawings by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli coinciding with Mars’ close opposition with Earth in 1877. At right, the drawings of Percival Lowell who built the fine observatory in Flagstaff to support his interest in Mars and the search for a ninth planet. H.G. Wells published his book “War of the Worlds” in 1897. (Image Credits: Wikipedia)

And long before the face on Mars in Cydonia, there were the canals of Mars. Spotted by the Mars observer Schiaparelli, the astronomer described them as “channels” in his native language of Italian. The translation of the word turned to “Canals” in English which led the World to imagine that an advanced civilization existed on Mars. Imagine if you can for a moment, this world without Internet or TV or radio and even seldom a newspaper to read. When news arrived, people took it verbatim. Canals, civilizations – imagine how imaginations could run with this and all that actually came from it. It turns out that the canals or channels of Mars as seen with the naked eye were optical illusions and a form of Pareidolia.

So, as our imagery from Mars continues to return in ever greater detail and depth, scenes of pareidolia will fall to reason and we are left with understanding. It might seem sterile and clinical but its not. We can continue to enjoy these fascinating rocks – dinosaurs, rats, skulls, human figures – just as we enjoy a good episode of Saturday Night Live. And neither the science or the pareidolia should rob us of our ability to see the shear beauty of Mars, the fourth rock from the Sun.

Having supported Mars Phoenix software development includin the final reviews of the EDL command sequence, I was keen to watch images arrive from the lander. The image was on a office wall entertaining the appearance of a not-so-tasty junk food item on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona, Illustration - T.Reyes)
Having supported Mars Phoenix software development including the final reviews of the EDL command sequence, I was keen to watch images arrive from the lander. The image was on an office wall entertaining the appearance of a not-so-tasty junk food item on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona, Illustration – T.Reyes)

In the article’s main image, what should not be included is the conglomerate rock on Mars. NASA/JPL scientists and geologists quickly recognized this as another remnant of Martian hydrologics – the flow of water and specifically, the bottom of a stream bed (NASA Rover Finds Old Streambed on Martian Surface). Truly a remarkable discovery and so similar to conglomerate rocks on Earth.

Favorite Images From Mars Rover Curiosity, NASA/JPL

The BeautifulMars Project: Making Mars Speak Human, University of Arizona

MRO HiRISE, High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, University of Arizona

Nine Planets, Mars, general information and links to many other sites

Mars Phoenix Lander, University of Arizona web site

Mind-Blowing Beauty of Mars’ Dunes: HiRISE Photo, Discovery Channel

Two Sources of Mars Anomaly Imagery and Discussion: One, Two

Nobody Knows What These Mysterious Plumes are on Mars

In March 2012, amateur astronomers began observing unusual clouds or plumes along the western limb of the red planet Mars. The plumes, in the southern hemisphere rose to over 200 kilometers altitude persisting for several days and then reappeared weeks later.

So a group of astronomers from Spain, the Netherlands, France, UK and USA have now reported their analysis of the phenomena. Their conclusions are inconclusive but they present two possible explanations.

Was dust lofted to extreme altitudes or ice crystals transported into space.? Hubble images show cloud formations (left) and the effects of a global dust storm on Mars (Credit: NASA/Hubbble)
Was dust lofted to extreme altitudes or ice crystals transported into space.? Hubble images show cloud formations (left) and the effects of a global dust storm on Mars (Credit: NASA/Hubbble)

Mars and mystery are synonymous. Among Martian mysteries, this one has persisted for three years. Our own planet, much more dynamic than Mars, continues to raise new questions and mysteries but Mars is a frozen desert. Frozen in time are features unchanged for billions of years.

An animated sequence of images taken by Wayne Jaeschke on March 20, 2012 showing the mystery plume over the western limb of the red planet (upper right). South is up in the photo. (Credit: W. Jaeschke)

In March 2012, the news of the observations caught the attention of Universe Today contributing writer Bob King. Reported on his March 22nd 2012 AstroBob blog page, the plumes or clouds were clear to see. The amateur observer, Wayne Jaeschke used his 14 inch telescope to capture still images which he stitched together into an animation to show the dynamics of the phenomena.

ModernDay_Astrophotographer2Now on February 16 of this year, a team of researchers led by Agustín Sánchez-Lavega of the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain, published their analysis in the journal Nature of the numerous observations, presenting two possible explanations. Their work is entitled: “An Extremely high-altitude plume seen at Mars morning terminator.”

Map from the Mars Global Surveyor of the current magnetic fields on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL
Map from the Mars Global Surveyor of the current magnetic fields on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

The phenomena occurred over the Terra Cimmeria region centered at 45 degree south latitude. This area includes the tiger stripe array of magnetic fields emanating from concentrations of ferrous (iron) ore deposits on Mars; discovered by the Mars Global Surveyor magnetometer during low altitude aerobraking maneuvers at the beginning of the mission in 1998. Auroral events have been observed over this area from the interaction of the Martian magnetic field with streams of energetic particles streaming from the Sun. Sánchez-Lavega states that if these plumes are auroras, they would have to be over 1000 times brighter than those observed over the Earth.

Auroras photographed from The International Space Station. The distinct Manicouagan impact crater is seen in northern Canada. Terrestial aurora exist at altitudes of 100 km (60 miles) (Credit: NASA)
Auroras photographed from The International Space Station. The distinct Manicouagan impact crater is seen in northern Canada. Terrestial aurora exist at altitudes of 100 km (60 miles) (Credit: NASA)

The researchers also state that another problem with this scenario is the altitude. Auroras over Mars in this region have been observed up to 130 km, only half the height of the features. In the Earth’s field, aurora are confined to ionospheric altitudes – 100 km (60 miles). The Martian atmosphere at 200 km is exceedingly tenuous and the production of persistent and very bright aurora at such an altitude seems highly improbable.

The duration of the plumes – March 12th to 23rd, eleven days (after which observations of the area ended) and April 6th to 16th – is also a problem for this explanation. Auroral arcs on Earth are capable of persisting for hours. The Earth’s magnetic field functions like a capacitor storing charged particles from the Sun and some of these particles are discharged and produced the auroral oval and arcs. Over Mars, there is no equivalent capacitive storage of particles. Auroras over Mars are “WYSIWYG” – what you see is what you get – directly from the Sun. Concentrated solar high energy streams persisting for this long are unheard of.

The second explanation assessed by the astronomers is dust or ice crystals lofted to this high altitude. Again the altitude is the big issue. Martian dust storms will routinely lift dust to 60 km, still only one-third the height of the plumes. Martian dust devils will lift particles to 20 km. However, it is this second explanation involving ice crystals – Carbon Dioxide and Water – that the researchers give the most credence. In either instance, the particles must be concentrated and their reflectivity must account for the total brightness of the plumes. Ice crystals would be more easily transported to these heights, and also would be most highly reflective.

The paper also considered the shape of the plumes. The remarkable quality of modern amateur astrophotography cannot be overemphasized. Also the duration of the plumes was considered. By local noon and thereafter they were not observed. Again, the capabilities tendered by ground-based observations were unique and could not be duplicated by the present set of instruments orbiting Mars.

A Martian dust devil roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) high was captured on Amazonis Planitia region of Mars, March 14, 2012 by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The plume is little more than three-quarters of a football field wide (70 yards, or 70 meters). (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA)
A Martian dust devil roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) high was captured on Amazonis Planitia region of Mars, March 14, 2012 by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The plume is little more than three-quarters of a football field wide (70 yards, or 70 meters). (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA)

Still too many questions remain and the researchers state that “both explanations defy our present understanding of the Mars’ upper atmosphere.” By March 20th and 21st, the researchers summarized that at least 18 amateur astronomers observed the plume using from 20 to 40 cm telescopes (8 to 16 inch diameter) at wavelengths from blue to red. At Mars, the Mars Color Imager on MRO (MARCI) could not detect the event due to the 2 hour periodic scans that are compiled to make global images.

Of the many ground observations, the researchers utilized two sets from the venerable astrophotographers Don Parker and Daiman Peach. While observations and measurements were limited, the researchers analysis was exhaustive and included modeling assuming CO2, Water and dust particles. The researchers did find a Hubble observation from 1997 that compared favorably with the 2012 events and likewise modeled that event for comparison. However, Hubble results provided a single observation and the height estimate could not be narrowly constrained.

Explanation of these events in 2012 are left open-ended by the research paper. Additional observations are clearly necessary. With increased interest from amateurs and continued quality improvements plus the addition of the Maven spacecraft suite of instruments plus India’s Mars Orbiter mission, observations will eventually be gained and a Martian mystery solved to make way for yet another.

References:

An Extremely High-Altitude Plume seen at Mars’ Morning Terminator, Journal Nature, February 16, 2015

Amateur astronomer photographs curious cloud on Mars, AstroBob, March 22, 2012

From Mars with Love on Valentines Day

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Happy Valentine’s Day from Mars to all the readers of Universe Today !

Well it’s truly a solar system wide Valentines celebration. From the Moon, Mars and even Comet Temple 1 with some pixie Stardust for the romantic rendezvous upcoming in a few short hours [Stardust-NExT Flyby at 11:37 p.m. EST Feb 14].

The Martian camera team from Malin Space Systems, San Diego, wishes to share a special heart-shaped feature from Arabia Terra – images above and below – with all Mars fans on this St. Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2011. And certainly, I love Mars ! Especially those gorgeous and brainy twin gals Spirit & Opportunity.

Heart-shaped feature in Arabia Terra on Mars at 21.9 degrees north latitude, 12.7 degrees west longitude. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
The image was taken on May 23, 2010 – at the start of northern summer on Mars – by the Malin-built and operated Context Camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The bright heart shaped feature is about 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) long. Arabia Terra lies in the northern hemisphere of Mars

The tip of the heart lies above a small impact crater centered at 21.9 degrees north latitude, 12.7 degrees west longitude.

According to a JPL press release, “The crater is responsible for the formation of the bright, heart-shaped feature. When the impact occurred, darker material on the surface was blown away, and brighter material beneath it was revealed.

PIA13799: Heart-Shaped Feature in Arabia Terra (Wide View). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
Some of this brighter material appears to have flowed further downslope to form the heart shape, as the small impact occurred on the blanket of material ejected from a much larger impact crater.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif manages MRO for NASA.

More Martian hearts images below from another Malin built camera aboard NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor orbiter

Happy Valentines Day from Mars Global Surveyor (MGS)
This heart shaped pit on Mars is located on the east flank of the Alba Patera volcano in northern Tharsis. The pit was formed by collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. Graben are formed along fault lines by expansion of the bedrock terrain. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
10 Martian Hearts for Valentine’s Day.
Mesas and depressions from all across Mars. Images taken by Mars Global Surveyor from 2001 to 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
Heart shaped landforms on Mars – or perhaps a box of chocolates !
Image taken by Mars Global Surveyor. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Mars Global Surveyor

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The Mars Global Surveyor was a spacecraft sent to Mars in 1996. It arrived at Mars and studied the planet for 10 years, until it broke down in 2006, and controllers on Earth lost contact with it. But while it was operating, the spacecraft took thousands of images, and made some major discoveries about Mars.

Mars Global Surveyor was launched on November 7, 1996, and made its orbital insertion on September 11, 1997. It used a technique called aerobraking to reduce its orbit and bring it into an orbit that brought it to an average distance of 378 km from the surface of Mars. It circled the planet in a polar orbit once every 117 minutes, which allowed it to photograph the entire Martian surface.

The spacecraft was equipped with 5 major scientific instruments: Mars Orbiter Camera, Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter, Thermal Emission Spectrometer, Magnetometer and electron reflectometer and the Ultrastable Oscillator for Doppler measurements. These instruments allowed the spacecraft to study the atmosphere and surface composition of Mars. But it also sent back the highest resolution photographs ever seen of Mars. The newer Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has returned better images with its larger telescope, but when the first MGS images first came back from Mars, they were stunning.

It made some incredible discoveries about Mars. Thanks to the observations from MGS, astronomers determined that Mars had a layered crust that was more than 10 km thick. It found ancient craters that had been buried and then later exposed by erosion, and it found evidence of ancient lava flows.

But perhaps the biggest discovery was made in 2006, which researchers announced that they had uncovered evidence of recent water activity on Mars. Images from the Mars Global Surveyor showed gullies on Mars which looked like they’d been formed by water. It’s possible that water had erupted out of an underground aquifer and spilled down the slope of a hill before evaporating in the pressure of the Martian atmosphere.

After a decade of service, Mars Global Surveyor went silent on November 2, 2006. It went into safe mode after being issued commands to change the orientation of its solar panels, and it stopped communicating. NASA said that it was, “battery failure caused by a complex sequence of events involving the onboard computer memory and ground commands.” But we’ll never really know what happened to it.

We’ve written many articles about the Mars Global Surveyor for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how we lost contact with the Mars Global Surveyor, and here’s a picture of Earth taken by MGS.

If you’d like more info, check out the Mars Global Surveyor homepage.

Source: NASA