Sammy Nickalls
August 29, 2015 8:07 am

What do you see when you look at images taken by the NASA Mars Curiosity rover? Let’s be real. . . probably a lot of red dust. And rocks. Like, a TON of rocks. But recently, the Internet has been totally freaking out over photos taken by the rover. Why? Because they believe that these images point to signs of life on Mars. No, not signs of past life — signs of life there today.

As CNN points out, this has been something that’s been happening for years. People have been claiming that Mars has lizards, mermaids, jelly donuts, giant Martian crabs, levitating rocks, traffic lights, and even a statue of Barack Obama — generally all gathered from weirdly shaped rocks that surface in Curiosity’s images. But the latest one has really got believers in a kerfuffle. And this time, it has to do with a UFO.

“I found this anomaly in the latest Curiosity Rover photo,” wrote Scott C. Waring, who runs UFO Sightings Daily, on the website earlier this week. “The black object looks like a crashed UFO. The craft is only about 2.5-3 meters across, so it probably only held a few passengers. Since many of the figures we found on Mars are about 5-8 cm tall, then we can conclude that his [sic] ship could carry about 20-40 passengers.”

Yes, that’s not making leaps and bounds *at all.* Well, it turns out that scientists actually have an explanation for why people are seeing things that aren’t necessarily there. “We have color HD cameras on this rover that far exceed anything ever sent to the planet before, and yet in order to find these things that kind of trick your brain into thinking it’s a mermaid or whatever, you do have to zoom in where it’s kind of a fuzzy shadow at that point,” Ashwin Vasavada, a scientist who works on the Mars rover project, told CNN.

There is actually a word for this phenomenon: pareidolia, or the tendency to spot faces in inanimate objects. One area of our brains is specialized to find actual faces, but sometimes, it can light up when we see a face pattern — for example, an electrical outlet and the front of a car that looks like a face (eyes as headlights!). This is why we can find patterns in toast, and it is the reasoning behind the Rorschach inkblot test. And that’s the reason that people have been able to find, for example, a tiny woman on the surface of Mars, such as in the image above.

“That photo was up in a place we are studying,” Vasavada told CNN, “a place we call a ‘geologic contact’ where there is a lot of sandstone next to mud that formed at the bottom of an ancient lake. Now, three billion years after that happened, little drifts of sand are following down the hill … when you zoom in and kind of look at the light and shadows, it does look like a little figure of a woman. But she would be a few inches tall and hasn’t moved in months, so we don’t think that’s what it is.”

People have also been claiming they’re seeing “Martian rats” and iguanas in photos, but Vasavada also has highlighted the impossibility of these life forms being on Mars. “We have no evidence of Martian iguanas or rats at this time,” he says. “One of the best things we found is that Mars could support life, (but) if anything we think it’s microbial life that’s possible at this time. Things like rats and iguanas would be way further up the food chain that we think Mars may have ever gotten to.”

Though Vasavada doesn’t take these claims to heart, he “enjoys” them and hopes that we will, indeed, find real signs of intelligent life on Mars. “There is no group that would be (happier) to see such a thing than the 500 scientists around the world who work on this Curiosity rover,” he told CNN. “So far we haven’t seen anything that is so obvious that it would be similar to what these claims are.”

This isn’t the first time people have claimed to see life on Mars. Earlier this month, many saw a “mysterious woman” on the planet:

So, is there life on Mars? Too early to say, Vasavada says. “We are working our way to answering what is a very difficult scientific question,” he says. “It’s unfortunately not going to be as easy as seeing a mermaid in a picture.”

Hey, well, at least everyone is having fun — Martian iguanas or no Martian iguanas.

(Images via Twitter)

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