There Is No Martian Beacon

The art of hunting for anomalies in the thousands of photos released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and then declaring any such supposed anomaly to be indicative of alien intelligence or UFOs has become a cottage industry enjoyed by people with far too much time on their hands. Such anomaly-hunting is premised on the easily-refutable notion, arrived at in a presuppositional manner by the believers, that NASA is involved in a conspiracy to cover up these signs. Such believers never bother to explain why, if their claims are true, NASA ineptly releases the revealing photos to the public.

On April 7, 2014, the Houston Chronicle published a story featuring a strange photograph taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover. The unmanned rover has been exploring Mars since its arrival on the planet in August 2012, its on-board cameras taking thousands of photographs of the Martian surface. In the particular photograph highlighted by the Houston Chronicle, we see a ground-based spray of light shining brightly far off in the distance. Staff writer Carol Christian begins her piece with the statement, “A NASA camera on Mars has captured what appears to be artificial light emanating outward from the planet’s surface.”


Any good reporter and journalist knows that to make unwarranted assumptions about the quality and legitimacy of one’s sources is to risk embarrassing oneself and lending undue credibility to nonsense. This is a basic lesson that seems to have escaped the attention of Carol Christian. She should have known that when a news venue such as the Houston Chronicle publishes a story with the words “strange bright light seen in photo from Mars” in the title, the craziest and most fringe elements of the Internet are going to take notice and cause the story to spread.

This is exactly what happened. The story of the mysterious light source on Mars was picked up by numerous websites and blogs, in large part because in writing her article, Christian did little to no vetting of her resources. As it turns out, the image which made her article was taken from UFO Sightings Daily, a UFO conspiracy website. The owner of the site is Scott Waring, whom I have written about before. Waring credits the discovery of the supposedly anomalous photo to YouTube vlogger “Streetcap1” and has this to say about the light in the photograph:

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 [sic] that it is from the surface. Sure NASA could go and investigate it, but hey, they are not on Mars to discovery [sic] life, but there to stall its discovery.

Yes, because as we all know, scientists who want to stall the discovery of life on Mars will of course send data-gathering equipment to Mars. Waring’s line of reasoning is nonsensical. If NASA really is attempting to stall or cover up the discovery of life on Mars, why would they have released the “smoking gun” image that exposes their entire scheme to Internet UFO nuts?

Contrary to Waring’s uninformed assertion, NASA scientists and other astronomers have in fact taken the time to investigate the mysterious photo of the light on Mars. It turns out that the mysterious light is not nearly as mysterious as Waring and others like him think. Astronomer Phil Plait weighed in on his Bad Astronomy blog:

When I saw the picture, I knew right away it wasn’t from some artificial source. It wasn’t even really a light source on Mars! I’ve worked with astronomical cameras for many, many years, and we see little blips like this all the time.

Doug Ellison, an imaging technician at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has gone beyond debunking to propose a solution that is much more likely and plausible than the intelligent alien hypothesis. On the same day the image began making the rounds online, Ellison argued via a Twitter post that the light in the image is the result of Curiosity taking a hit from a cosmic ray.

Cosmic rays are streams of high-energy particles that travel through space that can wreak havoc on electronic equipment. The most likely cause of the strange light in the Mars photo is that one such cosmic ray hit the Curiosity rover, penetrated the casing of one of the rover’s camera, and obliterated a small chunk of data. Ellison’s solution is supported by the evidence. There were two cameras on Curiosity that simultaneously snapped the exact same image. As Ellison points out in his tweet, there is no light on the image captured by the intact camera. The light in the photo is therefore almost certainly the result of an artifact.

Even the UK’s Daily Mail, that fine repository of sensationalist reporting, has the sense to defer to this highly plausible scenario:

According to NASA . . . the bright spot is not that unusual.

Curiosity takes images using two cameras, one in its right eye and the other in its left.

While the image from the right eye shows this bright spot, the same image from the left eye does not.

Ben Biggs, editor of All About Space magazine, says we should not jump to any conclusions when seeing images like this.

‘While the “light” is as yet unexplained, it’s quite a leap to assume that it has an intelligent source,’ he says.

‘The public can afford to speculate wildly but [NASA] is an organisation internationally renowned for credible science.

‘It needs to exhaust every other likely explanation before it can begin to explore less realistic phenomena.’

But unfortunately, the believers in UFO-related conspiracies will not be persuaded by the facts or compelled by the most basic and rudimentary methods of scientific investigation. They are committed to their own opinions on these matters and to the belief that they are much more informed than real scientists and qualified investigators.

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