Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 10, 2014

Alien Lights or Cosmic Rays on Mars


I was not going to talk about this because I didn’t think I had much to add. And I thought it was stupid. And, I’ve had run-ins with UFO Sightings Daily before (well, one).

But, people keep talking about it, so it at least deserves a mention here.

Origin Story

Everybody likes a good origin story. Wolverine made quite a lot of money.

The timeline, so far as I can tell, is that UFO Sightings Daily “discovered,” on April 6, 2014, and then posted, on April 7, 2014, the following:

Light on Mars in Curiosity Image (from UFO Sightings Daily)

Light on Mars in Curiosity Image (from UFO Sightings Daily)

An artificial light source was seen this week in this NASA photo which shows light shining upward from…the ground. This light was discovered by Streetcap1 of Youtube. This could indicate there is intelligent life below the ground and they use light as we do. This is not a glare from the sun, nor is it an artifact of the photo process. Look closely at the bottom of the light. It has a very flat surface giving us 100% indiction that it is from the surface. Sure NASA could go and investigate it, but hey, they are not on Mars to discovery life, but there to stall its discovery. SCW

Houston Chronicle Posts

It would’ve been relegated to everything else of random bright spots in images except that the Houston Chronicle‘s reporter Carol Christian decided to write a story about it.

And then two people posted to my podcast’s Facebook page (thanks Linda and Maryann). And Doubtful News picked it up, as did Phil Plait.

What Is It?

It’s a cosmic ray. >99% chance. Here’s what happens: High-energy particles constantly stream throughout the universe. We’ve been detecting them for decades, and their energy varies considerably.

Electronic imagers typically work when a photon – a bit of light – kicks up an electron within a pixel. Those electrons are counted after the exposure is done, and that’s how you get your image.

When high-energy particles randomly stream into a detector, they are higher-energy than the photons we’re usually trying to collect, and they appear as bright streaks. Digital cameras that you use for normal photography have algorithms to remove those as known noise sources, so you typically never see them. We also see them more rarely on Earth because many are blocked by the atmosphere.

Those of us who use research-quality cameras on telescopes, however, see them all the time. In fact, Phil said the exact same thing: “I’ve worked with astronomical cameras for many, many years, and we see little blips like this all the time.” (It’s nice when we agree.)

Right now, some of my research is focusing on using images from the Cassini spacecraft in orbit of Saturn, studying some of Saturn’s moons.

Rhea from Cassini (W1594713967_1)

Rhea from Cassini (W1594713967_1)

Here is one image of Rhea, taken by the ISS camera. It’s a raw image, about as original as you can get with respect to almost no processing has taken place. And look at all those stray bits of light! Pretty much every single one of them, including the two long streaks, and including the dots, are cosmic rays.

More evidence? Courtesy of Phil Plait, we have an animation:

Light, No Light (Phil Plait)

What’s nice is that this is from Curiosity’s NAVCAM, which has a pair of cameras. From the right camera, we have the bright spot. From the left camera, we don’t. The reason that you’re seeing a small shift in position is due to parallax between the two cameras (by design, since this helps tell distance). (FYI, Mike Bara, who addressed this just a half hour ago on Coast to Coast AM, claimed that the cosmic ray was the least likely explanation, and while he posts the parallax GIF on his website, he said he refused to name the source because “I dislike him [Phil Plait] intensely.” Despite showing a another image that Phil linked to, so clearly he read Phil’s blog. Mike’s seemingly only explanation for why it was not a cosmic ray is that he said it didn’t look like other cosmic rays people are pointing to. That’s like me saying that a rose is not a plant because all the examples of plants you’re showing me are trees. It’s a class of object, every cosmic ray on a detector looks a little different, especially when you have blooming factored in (see the next section).)

Why a Rectangle?

Either the cosmic ray hit at an angle, so we see it as a streak (see above example ISS image), or, as is also common with CCD images, when an individual pixel collects too much light, it tends to overflow, and spill over into neighboring pixels, almost always along columns. We call this “blooming.”

But Wasn’t It Seen In a Second Image in the Same Spot a Day Later?

Mike made this claim, and I saw it from a commenter on Phil’s blog. Thus far, no one has actually posted or linked to such a second image that I can find. If anyone has seen this claimed image, please let me know. And by “please let me know,” I mean providing the NASA image ID so I can find it. I know that Mike put an “Enhancement of April 3rd image” on his blog, but it’s useless for proving anything without the ID it came from.

Anything Else?

Maybe? This post might be slightly premature, and it’s a bit stream-of-consciousness, but I wanted to get it up before bed. The station on which I was listening to Mike on C2C decided to cut out the second half hour because of some crash somewhere, something about people dying, breaking news, etc. When I get the full audio, I may add to this, but it sounded like George was taking the interview in a separate direction after the bottom-of-the-hour break, though a caller may have brought it back up.

Let’s be clear about a few things, though:

1. The object is seen in one camera, not in another, despite the two cameras taking an image at the same time of the same spot.

2. There is a claim that it showed up in another image a day later, but so far as I can tell, this is just a claim and no one has pointed to that image. If it exists, I’d like to see it and I’ll re-examine my curt analysis.

3. We see similar artifacts in other Mars images, and we see them all the time in space-based cameras, and we see them generally in all electronic cameras (at least those that don’t get rid of them for us).

4. The story comes from UFO Sightings Daily and only became mainstream because a reporter at a somewhat mainstream paper picked it up.

So, what could it be? Aliens? Architecture that glints just right so it’s only in one camera of two that are right next to each other imaging something a few miles away? An impact flash from a crater forming? A dust devil reflecting the light just right? Lens flare?

Or a cosmic ray? I don’t think any of those previous explanations are likely, I think this is most likely.

Bara, as with other UFO / aliens protagonists, say that Curiosity should live up to its name and drive over there and investigate. Yup, take days, power, money (gotta pay the ground crew), and investigate what is very likely to be a high-energy particle that made it through the atmosphere and onto a camera’s CCD.

What do you think?

Edited to Add (10 hrs later): Per Phil’s latest blog post: “Except not really. Another expert on Mars hardware said it may have actually been a “light leak”, a bit of sunlight that somehow got into the camera through a hole, or crack, or seam somewhere in the hardware. He also says it may be a sharp reflection of sunlight off a glinty rock. Those are certainly plausible, though right now we don’t have enough evidence to say for sure which of these explanations may or may not be the right one.” Yup, another possibility. As is a defect in the camera sensor itself (see discussion in the comments to this blog post).



  1. I know that Mike put an “Enhancement of April 3rd image” on his blog, but it’s useless for proving anything without the ID it came from.

    Crappy referencing — an essential element of classical pseudo-scientific methodology.

    Comment by Yakaru — April 11, 2014 @ 1:40 am | Reply

  2. The second picture – http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=NRB_449700848EDR_F0301254NCAM00252M_&s=588
    Right B (NAV_RIGHT_B) onboard NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 588 (2014-04-02 09:04:28 UTC).

    The second NAVCAM again shows nothing.

    Comment by Required — April 11, 2014 @ 2:36 am | Reply

  3. Stuart, the other instance of the light is discussed on the unmannedspacemission.com forum, which Phil linked to in his blog: http://www.unmannedspaceflight.com/index.php?s=0c87729649818ff6f15f5508cef5181f&showtopic=7825

    Emily Lakdawalla from NASA is one of the participants.

    Comment by Trekker — April 11, 2014 @ 4:30 am | Reply

  4. Third picture – http://www.unmannedspaceflight.com/index.php?s=&showtopic=7825&view=findpost&p=208875

    Comment by Required — April 11, 2014 @ 6:46 am | Reply

  5. Okay, so a few things: It looks like the other image is from the day BEFORE, not the day after; and it’s a similar artifact but in a different part of the frame (though both are in the upper part) and a different point geologically, and it’s only in the right camera not the left, and it’s a single pixel instead of a few pixels vertically. Right?

    If that’s the case, I’d say cosmic ray is still the most likely explanation, or as Emily said, perhaps pointing to some kind of weird camera defect.

    Comment by Stuart Robbins — April 11, 2014 @ 7:15 am | Reply

    • I’d agree it’s a cosmic ray.

      Comment by Graham — April 11, 2014 @ 8:02 am | Reply

  6. The idea of just driving over to that spot popped into my head too, but I quickly realized that wouldn’t be possible without a major change in priorities. We’d need strong evidence that a diversion of Curiosity from planned activities would be useful. In this case, it’s too clear that moving the rover to that spot wouldn’t provide us with any pertinent information.
    But as already shown in the quote used above, some UFO enthusiasts have already made up their minds that NASA is trying to “stall…discovery” of life on Mars, so those folks will not be convinced by anything that contradicts their predetermined fantasies about what we should’ve (in their views) long since found.

    Comment by Rick K. — April 11, 2014 @ 8:11 am | Reply

    • Yup.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — April 11, 2014 @ 8:17 am | Reply

  7. It occurs to me to ask, if that were a real object at the indicated distance, would it be big enough to show up on images taken from orbit?

    Comment by David Evans — April 13, 2014 @ 3:09 am | Reply

    • All depends on size and brightness relative to the surrounding material when taken at that angle. Some people are suggesting it’s a shiny rock that is only shiny at the specific angle to the right NAVCAM (so doesn’t appear in the left). That’s less likely to me than a cosmic ray, but if that were the case, it would probably not show up from orbit because that would also be the wrong angle. Of course, if it were city lights, then yes, it would show up.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — April 13, 2014 @ 9:23 am | Reply

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