You know, when it comes to other planets it would seem that there’s always someone with too much time willing to come up with a conspiracy theory. The latest involves a rock photographed by the NASA Curiosity Rover in a region on Mars that has been named “Yellow Knife Bay“. A keen UFO enthusiast was trawling through 100’s of NASA Curiosity pictures when he discovered a picture with a rock central frame that does bare a startling resemblance to a rodent of some description. Theories of the nature of the rock ranged from a fossilized mammal to a bizarre NASA experiment to see how long a rat could live on Mars.
Sadly, and much to the chagrin of ufologists, the rock is just…well…a rock. Seeing forms we think we recognise in seemingly mundane objects happens due to a psychological phenomena known as pareidolia. It was proposed by Carl Sagan that human beings are hard wired to see forms we recognise in random patterns. From a survival perspective this is potentially a very useful trait, the thing lurking in the bush that looks like a leopard may actually be a leopard! From the perspective ufologists and those of us with the time to stare up at clouds on spring mornings, it means that we see shapes in seemingly unusual places that we associate with real life objects.
Joy Crisp, a project scientist from NASA’s JPL told reporters yesterday that “Clearly, it [the rock] results from, you know, a lot of things like wind erosion and mechanical abrasion and breakdown chemical weathering of the rocks, as to why they get these weird shapes,”
In an odd but predictable twist to this story “@RealMarsRat” can now be found micro-blogging on twitter.
Curiosity is about to start it’s long journey to the base of Mount Sharp, a martian mountain that reaches 3.4 miles into the Martian Sky. NASA scientists are hoping to find more signs of liquid erosion as they study a region that they hope will be rich in visible sedimentary layers. Curiosity has already found striking evidence for ancient stream beds on Mars and conditions that could have suited microbial life in Mars’ past.
For those that don’t know Mars One is an organisation based in the Netherlands who have an audacious plan to send the first people to Mars. The twist in the tail is that to reduce the costs of the mission considerably, they’re not planning to bring them back. A one way ticket to a lifetime on the Red Planet. Who, you might ask, would be mad enough to sign up to spend the rest of their life in what amounts to a number of small sheds in one of the most inhospitable environments it’s possible to imagine? Well since they posted their search for the first Martian astronauts on their web site they have received over 78,000 applicants.
So do they have a chance of achieving their goal? If you believe most of the press then they have roughly the same prospects as the proverbial snowball in the lower reaches of hades. First and foremost there is the problem of finance. The program needs to raise about six billion dollars, although the first parts of the mission could be achieved with about one billion. Currently they’ve raised just over 100,000 on their site through donations.
Then there are the technical issues which are not inconsiderable. With the current technologies available an astronaut on the way to Mars would absorb unsafe levels of radiation although new propulsion technologies could significantly reduce Earth/Mars transit time minimizing radiation exposure. Even so there would still be other potential health hazards such as deterioration of the bones and eyes. Add to this the fact that putting people on Mars is orders of magnitude more difficult than putting them on the moon.
So is this just an insane dream? Yes, but I’d take away the “just”…Most of man’s greatest achievements have happened because someone was willing to have an insane dream. The discovery of America, the first manned flight, the Apollo landings…at the time all of these were on the edge of believable. We need our dreamers, the people who think the unthinkable, they drive us to some of our greatest moments. So whilst I think that the Mars One Team have an uphill struggle at best, I applaud them for their dream and there willingness to encourage us to dream with them.