This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.
Usually when I spot faces on Mars, it’s because the local rock formations resemble them. A new face on Mars, however, is the work of NASA’s Perseverance rover. The accidental artistic masterpiece is the result of two sample collection holes combined with a wheel scuff mark. Move over, Mona Lisa.
There’s a scientific explanation for what turned out to be a serendipitously goofy portrait. The two holes are where the rover picked up samples of sandy regolith — crushed up rock and dust — as part of its growing rock collection. Percy used a special drill bit to gather and stash the samples in hopes of sending them back to Earth for future study.
The wheel scuff came from a little earlier in the mission. The rover team commanded Percy to make the mark to get a look at the regolith below the surface. They liked what they saw and returned to the spot to collect the samples.
I’m not the only person who saw a face in the Martian ground after Percy got done with the sampling site. Rover engineer Daniel Zayas had a delightful interpretation, likening the shape to a Yip Yip from Sesame Street. If you need a refresher, Yip Yips are big-mouthed, googly-eyed aliens from Mars, so it couldn’t be more perfect.
Most of Percy’s samples up to this point have been drilled out of rock, so the regolith is special. Scientists would love to get a closer look at the material in a lab. “If we have a more permanent presence on Mars, we need to know how the dust and regolith will interact with our spacecraft and habitats,” Perseverance team member Erin Gibbons said in a NASA statement this week.
Gibbons had also noted the resemblance to a face, sharing another rover shot with a close-up of the “eyes” on Twitter.
The face is an excellent example of pareidolia, the human tendency to see familiar objects in random shapes. It happens all the time on Mars, with recent examples of a duck rock and a loaf-shaped cat. It’s all in good fun. We have no evidence of aliens hanging out carving Earth-shaped things into the local rocks on Mars.
While Percy’s artwork is sublime, the rover probably shouldn’t quit its day job as a mobile robotic laboratory.
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