The Mars Ball Mystery

Would the Martians convert to knitting? While aliens are unlikely to make themselves a scarf in anticipation of winter, the crazy theory has sparked mockery on the internet in recent days. At the origin of this funny story, an image of Mars published by NASA on Tuesday, July 12, that shows, placed on sand, an object that looks like a ball of tangled yarn. Other teasing social media users liken the unidentified threads to a plate of spaghetti.

The snapshot was taken by the rover Persistencethe robotic explorer on a mission to the Red Planet since April 2021. “There are many uncertainties” regarding the nature of the object, a NASA spokesman told AFP.

A parachute cord

The most plausible explanation is actually down to earth: It could be pieces of the rope connecting the rover to the parachute used to slow the descent during the landing. Or to the one used to lower it below the last meters (a step called “sky crane”).

“It can be assumed that these small pieces of debris were moved by the wind after landing”, explains the NASA spokesperson. And they are probably still moving: a few days after the picture of the wires, the robot went back to the same place, but they had disappeared.

Persistence has already come face to face several times with the equipment that made it possible for him to land on Mars. In June, another image showed what at first glance looks like a piece of aluminum foil sandwiched between two red rocks. It was actually a piece of thermal insulation from the descent stage (also used for “sky crane”).

old lake

All of these images were captured by the rover in the delta of an ancient river that scientists believe flowed into a huge lake billions of years ago, and where Perseverance is searching for traces of ancient life.

In place of the now-disappeared lake is the Jezero crater, where the rover landed in February 2021. It was here in April that he was able to photograph the parachute itself. The small helicopter on board for the trip called Ingenuity, in turn, captured even more impressive images during the flight: not only the parachute, but also the rear shield, which contained the latter before its deployment. Pictures that can “help enable safer landings in the future”NASA commented at the time.

Other misleading clichés

Other images taken on Mars revealed unique images. On the 7th of May Persistence had thus immortalized a stone in which had been dug a cavity suggesting a doorway. The photo quickly went viral on Twitter, and the explanation for this phenomenon was quick: it would actually be a natural break in the rock, possibly caused by a landslide, according to NASA scientists. A hypothesis confirmed by the publication of a broad picture.

A year earlier, in April 2021, Persistence, who was just beginning the exploration of the planet closest to Earth, took a picture of a rock where many people thought they saw a man lying. So much so that a ufologist (a person who studies unidentified space objects) tried to prove on his YouTube channel the presence of a human on Mars.

It was really just an optical illusion called pareidolia, a bias that involves associating an ambiguous visual stimulus with an identifiable element, often a human or animal form. Illusions of this type have been observed in other Mars images, which in turn suggest the presence of a spoon, a face, Greek statues, plastic waste and even … a squirrel.

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