NASA photos taken by the Mars Orbiter and the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have provided a plethora of images for scientists and laymen alike to peruse, study, and speculate over. In fact, they spark conversations of alien life on a continuing basis, often lighting up the internet with wild and enthusiastic debates. And although alien hunters and UFO enthusiasts are quick to push the idea of proof of life on Mars (and elsewhere), NASA continues to hold the official line that there has yet to be definitive proof of alien life found on Mars (or anywhere).
CNN reported August 28 that the lively ongoing debate found fresh image fodder with a NASA Curiosity rover photo this week. Alien hunters argued that evidence had been found of a crashed miniature spaceship on Mars, one that could carry an estimated 20 to 40 passengers if they happened to be 5-to-8 centimeters tall. The co-called “spaceship” is just the latest in a long line of sightings of spacecraft, statues or pieces of them, petroglyphs, artifacts, and various other somewhat recognizable objects that supposedly support the position of extant extraterrestrial life or signs of a former alien civilization.
The more skeptical and clinically minded, of course, have their own ideas about what are actually stored in the NASA photo pixels. And the existence of alien life being captured in those pixels, although possible, is rather unlikely. In fact, what is usually offered up as proof of life is often shadowplay and lighting and/or, just as likely, photographic vagueness or simple wishful thinking.
Ashwin Vasavada, a scientist who works on the Mars rover project, told CNN that much of “sightings” are a psychological process known as paradoleia, or the brain’s recognition as familiar objects or patterns things that are not truly there (like cloud-shapes and seeing the image of the Virgin Mary in a grilled-cheese sandwich). “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.”
Vasavada recounted the recent internet sensation of the image of the small woman found in the rocks of Mars. “That photo,” he said, “was up in a place we are studying, 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,” he added, “she would be a few inches tall and hasn’t moved in months, so we don’t think that’s what it is.”
In fact, many of the “alien” objects found in the photos taken by Curiosity and other NASA explorers have been quite small. Unfortunately for those searching for alien life, a recent study indicated that alien life, especially intelligent alien life, when found would be quite a bit larger than the average human being.
The scientist said that although NASA remains hopeful of the discovering signs of life on Mars in the future, the current offerings by enthusiasts do not constitute scientific proof in any way. “We have no evidence of Martian iguanas or rats at this time,” he told CNN. “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.”
He, of course, was referring to the now famous images of the much-debated Mars iguana (or rat, or squirrel) that captivated the internet in early 2013. NASA maintains that the “animal” was nothing more than an oddly shaped Martian rock.
So who wins the debate? Considering that empirical data does not exist that proves the existence of alien life on Mars, there really is no debate. However, the absence of empirical data does not seem to offer an obstruction to those who search for extraterrestrials. To the enthusiasts, NASA photos are proof enough. But if scientists are correct, and there is no reason to believe that they are not, the proof apparently is all in the enthusiasts’ heads — literally.