Photos from the various Mars orbiters, the fly-by operations, and the various landers have given scientists countless images to go over for years to come. But some of those photos capture unique images that set -- if not the scientific community -- many people to talking, speculating, wondering just how something that takes that particular shape got that way and why it is where it is. Such is the case with what looks like the rather massive profile of a pachyderm -- the face of an elephant.
But unlike the famous "Face of Mars," which was the cornerstone of many conspiracy theories and pan-galactic intelligence proponents for three decades (and counting, even though fly-by high resolution photos taken by the European Space Agency in 2006 show it to be a well-worn but otherwise unremarkable massif), the face of the elephant on Mars has been easily explained. It is simply the form taken by a monstrous lava flow.
According to Alfred McElwen of HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) at the University of Arizona, the elephant face is part of the lava flow in Elysium Planitia, the youngest flood-lava province on the Red Planet. McElwen says that the lava flood was likely emplaced over decades (although fast-flowing lava flows are in evidence on Mars as well).
That it formed the face of an elephant is an entirely different matter and has to do with human perception, not actual geological processes or even the possibility of alien civilizations. The human brain has a knack for taking unfamiliar objects and/or sets of features and converting that information into a pattern more familiar. It is why some say they see the "Man in the Moon" and see the Dragon in the constellation of Draco, the reason why individuals see the image of Jesus in an oddly curled cheese puff, how animals are seen in the billowing shapes taken by clouds. It is this mental processing and an attempt to understand mindsets that forms the basis for the famed psychological inkblot exam, the Rorschach test. It is a process called "pareidolia."
But the elephant "face" (or head) and the "Face of Mars" aren't the only things people have seen in photos taken of Mars and its surface.
An image taken by the Mars Global Surveyor has given many individuals pause, even the noted scientist and science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke. The image appeared to be of a mile-long translucent or glass worm or perhaps a tunnel system, although some, like astronomer Phil Plait, suggests that it is simply a series of ridges that form an optical illusion.
There is also the odd impact crater with just-so placed outcroppings within its circumference that resembles a huge smiley face. The "Happy Face" crater on Mars is another example of pareidolia, where the simplest form of the human face, a circle with an inset pair of dots and an underlying streak, is recognizable as such.
And then there's the Mars monolith, the image of what appears to be a an elongated rectangular stone jutting up from the Martian surface. Although astronomers like Jonathan Hill, a research technician and mission planner at the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University, easily debunks the image as nothing more than a somewhat symmetrical boulder where not enough resolution in the pixellation make it appear angular and artificial, there are those who take one look at the lone object and draw comparisons to the monolith in the famed Arthur C. Clarke story "The Sentinel," which was the basis for the novel and screenplay for "2001: A Space Odyssey." Hill also notes that the elongated shadow in the photo is the result of the time of day on Mars when the photo was taken, the shadow appearing longer due to the fact that the sun was on the horizon.
There are other photos with unique features, strange-looking objects, and some images that appear not that unfamiliar. Most can be explained through detailed scientific or clinical analysis. Some are left for later study and observation to prove them something other than they appear. And some remain so unique that they foster theories of their very existence.
Until mankind actually makes it to Mars to put much of the speculation to rest, these and many more images will become part of the photo chronicles that make up a bizarre chapter in the exploration of the Red Planet.
(photo credit: NASA/JPL/Arizona State University)