Curiosity Sees Bizarre Peaks on Mars

This image was taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover on Sol 3474 (2022-05-15 13:35:22 UTC). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In August 2012, the Curiosity rover landed in Gale Crater on Mars and began exploring the surface for indications of past life. The rover made some profound discoveries during this period, including evidence that the crater was once a massive lake bed and detected several spikes of methane. The rover also captured images of several interesting terrain features, many of which went viral after the photos were shared with the public. Time and time again, these photos have proven that the tradition of seeing faces or patterns on random objects (aka pareidolia) is alive and well when it comes to Mars.

On Sol 3474 (May 15, 2022), the Curiosity rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) took a particularly interesting photo showing spikes sticking out of the ground. The spikes are likely material that has survived erosion of the surrounding sedimentary rock, which is consistent with other evidence obtained by Curiosity that shows how erosion and sedimentary deposits were common in Gale Crater (and still are). That said, the pareidolia crowd (fresh out of the “Doorway” farce) is sure to have a field day with this one.

This image was taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover on Sol 3474 (2022-05-15 13:35:22 UTC). On May 26, the photo began circulating after the SETI Institute tweeted about it and offered a possible (i.e. sane and rational) explanation of how the feature formed. As they explained, the spikes would likely be “cemented filings from ancient fractures in a sedimentary rock” left behind when the surrounding rock (made of softer material) was eroded away. There are two possible mechanisms for this.

As scientists have learned, thanks in large part to evidence provided by Curiosity, Gale Crater was once a lake bed that had liquid water flowing into it. This coincided with the Noachian period (about 4.1 to 3.7 billion years ago), when Mars had a denser atmosphere, a warmer environment, and flowing water on its surface. The movement of water in Gale Crater has led to the formation of sedimentary features, such as the layers of rock that form the base of Mount Sharp. Although Mars is not eroded by water today, it still experiences massive dust storms that can erode the faces of sedimentary rocks.

However, the tweet inspired a wave of pet suggestions and theories. One particularly interesting one is that they may be fulgurites, the glass tubes found in sandy regions that form when lightning strikes and causes silica sand and rock to fuse together. While this is a technical possibility, it is highly unlikely. While some research suggests that lightning can happen during dust storms (as a result of atmospheric particles generating static electricity), lightning has never been observed on Mars.

Furthermore, the atmosphere of Mars is too thin to maintain the voltage needed to generate the types of powerful lightning that cause fulgurites here on Earth. Finally, the fact that Curiosity found this feature suggests that they are statistically significant, which is not supported by observational evidence or theoretical research (which suggests that it is uncommon). In short, any lightning that could occur on Mars would be too rare and too faint to explain a feature like this.

It looks like smart money is currently on the possibility that this feature was caused by erosion. But that shouldn’t deter a stream of wild speculations and ideas. It’s essentially a standing tradition when it comes to Mars. Examples go back to Schiaparelli’s “Canali” features, the “Face of Mars” Viking 1 orbiter image, the “humanoid”, the “wooden plank”, the “Jelly Donut”, the “dinosaur skull” and the many, many other cases where people saw things that weren’t there.

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Quote: Curiosity Sees Bizarre Spikes on Mars (2022, June 8) retrieved June 8, 2022 from

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