Slow-witted nimrods are all around us, and they get a lot of play on the Internet. No, I am not talking just about politicians, but also conspiracy theorists, alien abduction believers, “The Moon Landing Was Faked” morons and so on. Sometimes the ideas are just so ludicrous that they do not deserve even a moan. However, this one caught my attention.
Recently an Indian Mars orbiter (Mars Orbiter Mission, or “MOM”) imaged a portion of Mars’ great canyon, Valles Marineris, which you can see here from the ISRO page:
In all fairness, if you look to the lower left corner, you will see what may appear to you as distinctly mushroom shaped cloud seemingly rising from a large crater. It actually makes a pretty striking first impression
However, if you are not a planetary scientist or photo interpreter, you might not even notice it. But if you were scouring this image in the hope of finding something unusual, it might jump out at you. (Boo!) This is especially true for people whose minds are attuned to anything that may look odd, which apparently is a talent shared by good crime (and science) detectives with pseudo scientific wingnuts. That is just what happened here, with fringe websites claiming that this “evidence” of a nuclear explosion on Mars is proof of an alien presence there, as well as a NASA cover up. (e.g., http://goo.gl/qMVkdw).
Wow, really? Here is where the talent of a good crime scene detective (dare I say a “CSI”?) differs from that of a conspiracist. The crime detective will use actual skills to determine the reality of the situation (well, at least in theory). Someone convinced that aliens are real and that the government is just covering it up will overlook the evidence in favor of their own prejudice. Conspiracy theorists see what they want to see, and operate on the guiding principle of “Don’t confuse me with facts.”
It is ridiculously easy to fake photos these days, but I do not believe that this image is faked, as it comes directly from the ISRO website. However, there was no nuclear explosion and in fact, not even any cloud. Just as NASA said regarding the infamous “Face on Mars,” this so-called “mushroom cloud” is nothing more than a play of light and shadow on surface features.
Note that this is a region of the famous Valles Marineris, a gigantic canyon, gouged several kilometers deep into the Martian surface. The side of any such depression opposite the direction of incident sunlight will be lit up, the other edge showing dark shadows. Clearly here the sunlight is coming from the right.
However, the “mushroom cloud” would indicate that the light is coming from the left. The only conclusion is that the “cloud” is not above the surface at all, but rather simply a result of shadows on the Martian surface.
People can and will continue to believe what they want to, and they will continue to ignore the real evidence. This is evidence at most of pareidolia, the tendency of the human mind to see what it wants to see in random patterns. In any event, this is not evidence of an explosion on Mars, nor even a dust cloud. It is an optical illusion.