Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 17, 2009

Life on Mars? Lots of Methane Means Cow Farts?


Over the last week, there have been lots of headlines floating around. “Methane Could Signal Life on Mars,” claims InformationWeek. “Life on Mars is a Possibility,” says the Dispatch Online. “Methane on Mars. Does that Mean … Life?” asks the Christian Science Monitor. And “Gas ‘May Be Sign of Life’ on Mars,” adds the CBBC Newsround.

What’s the news? And why are people excited about gas that we’ve all smelled around farms? And why am I not thrilled and jumping up and down that we now have proof of life?

Why Methane Is Important

Methane is a molecule that is a gas under most circumstances. You need to get to temperatures like those of the outer planets’ moons to get methane to freeze. It’s a simple molecule, composed of one atom of carbon and four of hydrogen (CH4).

A discovery of methane on a body without much of an atmosphere is important because it does not last long. Methane will relatively quickly react with ultraviolet radiation and photo disintegrate into – I think – ethane – by losing a hydrogen atom (and then boding with another CH3 to form ethane, C2H6). It can also be destroyed in Mars’ atmosphere by other mechanisms.

What all that means is that in order for there to be methane present today in Mars’ atmosphere, there must be a very recent (as in within the last ~100 years) source of it. At least in the atmosphere.

Why this is interesting regardless is that it means that something likely created the methane recently. On Earth, the bulk of methane is produced by methanogenic bacteria (bacteria that release methane as a byproduct of metabolism). And, as the title of this post suggests, a lot of this is seriously from cows farting (or flatulating for my more refined readers). Methanogenic bacteria live in many mammalian gastrointenstinal tracts, including cows, but also humans. And that’s as far as I’ll go with that line of thought.

However, there are other sources of methane that do not involve life. Among them is the process of converting iron oxide (rust) into another group of minerals, and this releases methane in the process (along with using water, carbon dioxide, and a heat source).

So Does This Mean Cows Are Farting on Mars?

Not likely.

In all seriousness, this is an interesting discovery. It could indicate that there are or recently were methanogenic bacteria on Mars. If they’re not there now, then they could have been there in the very recent past, produced the methane, and it is now being released, slowly.

However, and I hate to agree with the folks over at Answers in Genesis on this one, the history of “life on Mars” is fraught with announcements and then retractions. And often, the media make a sensational headline, get people all worked up, and then don’t follow-up with the story when it turns out to be less interesting. Seriously, does anyone remember the media owning up to ALH84001 NOT having bacterial fossils?

Regardless of the source of the methane, however, this is an interesting discovery because Mars is effectively saying, “Hey, I’m still an active planet! I’m not telling you what is going on right now, but I’m dropping little teasers like this.” Methane is a teaser. Because it has a short lifetime in Mars’ atmosphere, it needs to have a very recent source. This indicates either active geology and/or active biology. Either one is interesting.

Final Thoughts

The reason that I’m not jumping on the “Life on Mars” bandwagon – unlike UFO people who say this is just prepping us for Obama disclosing the UFO presence on our planet, or the Hoagland crowd who say NASA knew all along – is that life on Mars should, in my opinion, be the last conclusion, reached only after all the other known possibilities are exhausted.

Why? Well, to quote a clichéd phrase from Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Life on Mars would be amazing – it would redefine humanity’s role in our li’l corner of the universe. But, it’s an extraordinary claim, and it needs more evidence than methane that could have other sources.

That’s why this is very interesting news, but most headlines are very premature. If you would like to read the actual real, original NASA press release, click here.

January 14, 2009

Pareidolia – The Face on Mars


Way back in the earlier days of planetary exploration, there was a plucky little pair of spacecraft known as Viking 1 and 2 that photographed much of Mars between about 1976 and 1980. They returned thousands of photographs that provided the first global mosaics of the planet and are still sometimes used today (such as in my own research where there are gaps in the higher-resolution THEMIS coverage).

Among the regions photographed is Cydonia Mensae, named after a history city-state in Crete, that lies in the northern hemisphere. The region is very odd, geologically, lying on the border between very old regions and very young regions of the planet. Among the features in this odd region, however, is the infamous Face on Mars.


Pareidolia is a fairly interesting facet of human psychology. Put very succinctly, it is the phenomenon where people find patterns where there are none. One of the most common, every-day examples is seeing things in clouds, like a duck or a car or your Aunt Beatrice.

Astronomy is really all about pareidolia – pattern recognition. Every single constellation is due to pareidolia (except triangulum, which is just a triangle of stars). Most of the common names of clusters and nebulae are due to pareidolia (North American nebula, Wild Duck cluster, or Coat Hanger Cluster, for example).

One of the features of pareidolia is that people will recognize a human face in almost anything. That’s the whole concept behind “smilies” that are in so many instant messages and internet forums these days. Two dots and an arc make a “very obvious” smiley face: : ). It can be made even more convincing by adding a line: : – ). Or a circle around it: ☺. Or, WordPress seems to actually insert the smiley for me unless I add spaces, so: :).

I go through this exercise as a prelude to the “face on Mars” because all it is is an example of pareidolia wrapped up in conspiracy and sacred cows.

Viking’s Face on Mars

Face on Mars from Viking

Face on Mars from Viking

The image on the right is the infamous face on Mars, as seen from Viking. It’s a feature that’s just about 70 pixels in height. It is also full of data drop-outs — that’s what all the black dots are. And that’s why this face appears to have a nostril. In fact, when I look at this image, I see the nostril there and my brain automatically thinks that it’s part of the image. But I ignore the other black dots. Again, just an example of really how pareidolia works.

Now, to nip this in the butt from the onset, it was NASA who first said this looked like a face. When it was released, people drew attention to the feature and pointed out that it looked like a face. However, it was dismissed as pareidolia by the Viking chief scientist, Gerry Soffen, who said it was a “[trick] of light and shadow.”

It was NOT later that someone else thought it did and NASA was all hush-hush about it. Among others, Richard Hoagland is probably the main proponent of this, and he sees it as evidence of a long-lost martian civilization. He also sees pyramids, ruined cities, tunnels, and other features on the planet. He also believes that there is an ancient civilization on the moon and that the Apollo astronauts were sent there to retrieve artifacts from it. This post is meant to talk about the face, though, and not meant to get into Hoagland’s beliefs (that could fill a book, and he has … I will likely address some of his ideas in future posts).

Newer, High-Resolution, Different Sun-Angle Images

As the heading of this section suggests, the face has been imaged again over the last 30 years. Craft such as the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Express have all photographed parts of the planet, including the “face,” and including a 3-D perspective simulation:

Face on Mars - from Mars Global Surveyor

Face on Mars - from Mars Global Surveyor

Face on Mars - from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Face on Mars - from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

3-D Projection of the Face on Mars - from Mars Express

3-D Projection of the Face on Mars - from Mars Express

From each of these, you can make out the features that gave rise to the original pareidolia effect of a face, but you can also now see that it’s really just a rock formation. It is not a well-carved human face. It was, as Soffen put it, just a trick of the shadows.

Accusations of “Processing” to Remove the “Face”

To be blunt, Hoagland has often accused NASA and others of either not processing images at all or processing them too much and removing “evidence” for his ideas. He has done this so many times in so many ways and writes so much about it (for example, here) that I really would rather not spend the time to go through every single one of his claims. Rather, I will give a brief overview of what “processing” images means in astronomy.

When most people take an image with a digital camera these days, they click the shutter, take the photo, plug it into their computer, and save it, maybe printing it or posting it on some social networking site. That’s really about it.

However, when astronomers take images, there is a standard procedure to take. First, the data from the camera has to be relayed to Earth. Because bandwidth is limited, it is often compressed. When it reaches Earth, image artifacts are removed in a known, set, mathematical way to remove things like bad pixels, an uneven sensitivity in the detector, dust on the camera lens, and other things.

If it’s a color image, then all of the different colors have to be processed in the above manner. Then they are each assigned a color and merged. VERY RARELY are images presented in “true color” – what the human eye would see. Often, one of the color channels is infrared (which we can’t see) or ultra-violet (which we can’t see) or the visible color filters do not match the color receptors in the human eye. They are usually combined to enhance certain colors or features to make them stand out better for later analysis. Usually, only when images are re-processed later for press releases are they done to approximate “true color.” They are also further compressed – usually shrunk in size and saved with lossy image JPG compression – before released.

With this in mind, any accusation that the original images that show the face were “unprocessed” and the latest ones are, or vice versa, is ridiculous. It’s simply not true, and setting up a straw man to argue from.

Final Thoughts

The “Face on Mars” is an excellent example of the pareidolia phenomenon. There are others in astronomy – and on Mars – which I will address in other postings, but this one is the classic. I hope that this post has shown you how the brain can be deceived as well as given you an overview of some of the conspiracy claims surrounding the “face” feature.

For more information on pareidolia, I highly recommend the “SGU 5×5” 6-minute podcast on the subject, “Skepticism 101 – Pareidolia” from Sept. 24, 2008 (note – link is for an MP3 file).

For more detailed information on standard astronomical image processing, I even more highly recommend a page from my photography site, “Creating Astrophotos.” It focuses more on images from telescopes than spacecraft, but the basic concepts and processes are the same.

Status Update

Filed under: Miscellaneous — Stuart Robbins @ 2:51 pm

Sorry folks, I know I haven’t added more content in awhile. I’ve had a conference abstract that was due last week that precluded much of a winter break, which I’m taking this week. I’ve been using the time to do a fair amount of work on the revision of my “Journey Through the Galaxy” website (new version here, old version here) that I’ve had running since 1997 and I’ve linked to occasionally from this blog for background reading.  Oh, and I’ve also been working on photographing some of my coin collection.

I have lots of new post topics coming up, though.  Among them are:

  • Pareidolia and faces and blue-suited bigfoots on Mars.
  • Dr. Larry Esposito responds to an Institute for Creation Research article bashing him.
  • More Moon Hoax articles.
  • Responding to Jason Lisle’s “Taking Back Astronomy” from Answers in Genesis.
  • Radiocarbon dating.
  • Earth’s magnetic field reversals.
  • 2012 Doom!!
  • A Pole Shift … what the claims are and why they’re ridiculous.
  • How Jesus and King Tut are related to Venus flipping over, antigravity, phasers (like Star Trek), and the destruction of God’s soul. (I kid you not.)
  • Astrology – a topic I’ve avoided so far (except in my 2009 psychic predictions and horoscopes).
  • UFO (another topic I’ve avoided so far).  Within this topic, the idea of ancient astronauts and sweet sweet monkey love (the “theory” that space aliens copulated with primates to produce us).
  • … and oh-so-much more!

So yeah, stay tuned and I hope to have at least one content-related post up by the end of the day, with lots more to come!

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