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At first glance, it looks like a gate has been carefully carved into a rock face on Mars.
The grainy image, taken by the mast-mounted camera of NASA’s Curiosity rover on May 7 this year, appears to show an opening with an arched lintel leading to a smooth-walled passageway.
Conspiracy theorists seized on the snap as proof of life on the Red Planet, but scientists were quick to point out that the surrounding geology gives a clear picture of how the formation arose – and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t require a Martian architects.
A large crack to the left of the doorway shows that rock cracking events occur frequently in the area, while a boulder in the foreground appears to have fallen from the opening.
Sanjeev Gupta, professor of earth sciences at Imperial College London, one of the scientists on NASA’s Curiosity rover mission, said the hole was formed by “normal geological processes”.
“The rock probably just eroded from a slope and fell,” he said. “It doesn’t require a meteorite strike.
“Fissure is fracture and they are abundant on Mars and Earth – you don’t need marsquakes to produce them.
“There is nothing strange in the image – these are just normal geological processes.”
It’s not the first time images of Mars have sparked theories that civilizations may have inhabited the planet.
In 1977, NASA’s Viking 1 spacecraft photographed what appeared to be a face, looking down from the surface, leading to claims that Martians may have built monuments like the Sphinx.
When NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor flew over the area 11 years later, capturing images 10 times sharper than the original Viking snaps, the “face” turned out to be a shapeless rock formation. The original facial features had been caused by shadows.
Human brains programmed to find meaning in images
In May 2015, Curiosity photographed a pyramid the size of a small car, which some people believe could be the cornerstone of a larger buried megalith.
But at the time, Nasa pointed out that the rock resembled angular volcanic rocks found in Hawaii or Iceland.
The human brain is programmed to find meaning in random images, a psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia.
The particularly strong facial pareidolia would have helped our ancestors to spot predators in dense undergrowth or in the dark.
That’s probably why people thought they spotted a yeti on Mars Gusev’s crater, in photos taken by NASA’s Spirit rover in 2008. A rock that looked like an iguana was also spotted in 2013.
Scientists believe that life may have existed on Mars, but is struggling today due to the lack of atmosphere. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) plan to dig into the surface in hopes of finding fossilized remains of extraterrestrial lifeforms.
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