Spirit sees phenomenal Martian vista

By Phil Plait | April 1, 2009 7:30 am

I’ve been so taken with HiRISE lately that I haven’t written much about the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. They’ve been traversing Mars for almost six years now, taking tons of images and great in situ data. And now I feel remiss, because Spirit has stumbled on something very cool.

These images were taken on Sol 1858, just a few days ago (a Sol is a day on Mars, about a half hour longer than an Earth day). Spirit has been tooling around a high plateau called Home Plate, because it’s shaped like, well, a home plate in baseball. There’s evidence that water flowed in this area a long time ago, and as I looked over the images it was pretty obvious. Check out this first one:

The ground is covered with granular material, obviously ground up rocks and such. A little bit of the underlying bedrock (the Mars folks at JPL — keeping the tradition of naming formations they find — are calling it Baltra) is showing through, indicating wind erosion, typical of just about anywhere on Mars. But I noticed that the pebbles look almost sorted in size, which is what you expect when water flows over loose pebbles.

But then the next frame, taken just a few meters east of the first, really caught my eye!

The assorted rocks are all jagged, indicating they’re not as old as the pebbles. And they have an odd structure, which immediately struck me as looking like regmaglypts, the little thumbprints or scoop marks you see in lots of meteorites. Then I saw the next picture, and bang!

Meteorite on Mars seen by Spirit in 2006

AWESOME! It looks like a meteorite… and there’s precedent. Two years ago, Spirit found what’s thought to be a meteorite on the surface of Mars (see the image on the right). This newer image is higher resolution, presumably because the meteorite is closer to the camera than the first one was, just a little distance from Baltra. Note the similar structures, with some scooping, some obvious erosion-carved pocks, and even the color. This second meteorite — which is about 30 centimeters across — is a slightly different color, which may be due to different color balancing, or it could be real and from the slightly different color of the sand embedded into the rock from the pervasive winds.

But there’s still more! The ground crew at JPL commanded Spirit to rotate the camera to the east a bit, and in this image you can see the edge of the pebble field.

It looks like the pebbles end and then there’s some sort of lava flow; I’m guessing if water flowed here a few million years ago, the raised lava bed there formed a natural (duh) bank for it (JPL named it Floreana), so that’s why there are no more pebbles. The grayish spiky things may be minerals or crystals of some kind; I haven’t seen anything like them in previous rover pictures, but the resolution is bit too low to tell what they are.

So then the camera panned up to get more context for the previous shots, and this one seems to confirm the idea that we’re seeing some sort of lava:

To the right there is what looks like a spatter cone (named Rábida), a volcanic structure formed when lava spurts out of vent in the ground and, well, spatters around. The rock is rough, and flattens out around the cone. Clearly this is why the water flow stopped there.

More clear evidence of past eruptions can be seen in this next image, located almost 180 degrees around from the first series:

The layering of the rock may be due to periodic eruptions from the nearby vent, though they almost look like uplifted sedimentary layers (nicknamed Isabela); if water once flowed here a long time ago, it may have deposited material into those layers, and then when the vent formed it pushed up from below, causing the tilt. I see that same thing every day when I look at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder!

Funny, you wouldn’t expect to see a landscape on Mars that would literally remind you of home. But physical processes are the same everywhere, so you might expect to see some similarities.

In fact, when the ground crew commanded Spirit to pan a bit more and zoom out (again, for context), it saw an incredible view that really does look like Earth!

You can see the lava to the left and the Isabela layers in the center, but the formations on the right are a little baffling. Wind erosion carves odd shapes in the rock (remember the Bigfoot on Mars?) so I’m sure this is just another coincidence.

Though I have to admit, it looks an awful lot like the Galapagos Islands, too. Hard to say. It may be a trick of light and shadow, or just the time of year.


Comments (120)

  1. Dave W

    How far have Spirit and Opportunity traveled from their landing sites in the last six years?

  2. You’re just making a joke, Phil!

    This is obviously Venus.

  3. Eskil

    Looks like even when we arrive on Mars, the german tourists will have occupied all the beach chairs. Is nowhere sacred?

  4. Oh c’ḿon! And I was thinking how wonderful and marvelous this discovery was! Even planning to build a presentation for it… and then!

    BANG! Tourists!

    I’m sure they are all throwing rocks to that Mars Canyon!

    You certainly got me on this one, Phil!

  5. DaveS

    Not bad, Plait. I was expecting something more along the lines of you finding Jesus, or a gamma-ray burst detected, moving toward earth, or something.

  6. Joe Meils

    Just another barren landscape to me. Obviously, there is no intelligent life there. We should just cut off funding for these probes…

  7. Todd W.

    Someone sent Hoagland and a bunch of Disney developers to Mars?

  8. garrison

    This isn’t an April Fools joke is it?

  9. Darth Curt

    Heh… and I was going to say something that the ocean in the background of that one picture confirmed water on Mars.

  10. Oh no! Now I get it!

    All pictures coming from Mars are faked! And all of them are taken in that place!

    Phil! You have uncovered the biggest fraud of all times!

    I won’t continue lecturing astronomy… everything is false! We are the only planet in the entire universe… and Earth is flat!

  11. Sir Eccles

    Insert juvenile Uranus joke

  12. Hoonser

    Finally somebody’s taking April Fool’s day seriously.

  13. God damn it, Plait. I mean, seriously. >:(

  14. Cameron

    I thought that the colors seemed a bit odd…then I saw the Pacific…

  15. Brian Axsmith

    I was on my guard today Phil, and you still got me.

  16. I should have checked my watch. There will not be much seriousness today.

  17. Todd W.

    @Rogue Medic

    I’m contemplating saying that I’ve seen the light on that anti-vax thread, but I fear it would backfire…

  18. Argh. That’s twice I’ve been fooled today. Oh well, at least I got my whole office and my girlfriend with the same gag. Bloody April.

  19. F.D.

    I knew something about the colour balance in the first few shots seemed odd for Mars…

    Then I got confused.

    Then I remembered what day it was. Damnit.

  20. Patrick

    So, I guess there’s no rover there either, just a bunch of people with cameras in their fanny-packs. It looks really warm, too, which is kind of surprising. How much is a shuttle pass?

  21. BigBob

    Hook, line and sinker. Doh!

  22. American Voyager

    LOL!!! Best joke I’ve seen in quite a while. Good old April 1st!

  23. I thought that looked like a lava bomb, I missed the blue of the sea or sky in the wide shot, but the tourists! Then I knew I’d been had!
    Good one!

  24. scotth

    Dammit, this even had me going for a minute. And I was even there when those photos were taken.

    I was thinking, wow…. interesting that Rover guys have been using all those Galaps names.

  25. This is definitely one of the best April Fool’s day jokes out there.

  26. How long before Spirit and Opportunity show pictures of the giant patoot on the back end of Mars?

  27. GreyRogue

    You are a bad bad man. :)

  28. Karnbeln

    You got me. I didn’t see it coming.

  29. Dave Lehocky

    had me on the first three pics

  30. Jonboy

    Un-Bill-Ievable !
    April 1st, 2009 by Jonathan Smith
    It was just a matter of time before some one decided to challenge another aspect of science other than Evolution. Well folks only in the wonderful state of Florida could that have happened.

    Late last night our old friend Sen Storms(R) filed a Bill SB 666asking for Academic Freedom in the Teaching of Astronomy. In a interview with the local media Storms stated that “There isn’t even a theory of astronomy,we can see how the stars are not just randomly scattered in the sky.They are placed there for a purpose.Look at the North Star, it’s placed exactly in the right position to guide us at night,our children should be made aware of this.

    In a statement from the Discovery Institute Dr Bill Gough a expert in astrology offered support for the Bill. “It is just a extension of Fine Tuning” he commented,”The Universe is obviously Intelligently Designed,any fool can see this,yet these arrogant astronomers are afraid to expose our school children to both side of the controversy.” “We have many scientists who are now accepting there is a major flaw in modern astronomy but are afraid to speak out”

  31. Todd W.


    Mmm…nice try, but too many bits in that reek of April Fool’s joke. Funny, though. I especially liked that the bill # was 666.

  32. I see a Plait-Hoagland paper in the future. :)

  33. Very good. I didn’t realize the joke until the end, not even at pict #6, where you can see the OCEAN behind. Perhaps because April 1 is not the day of jokes here (it’s Dec 28).

  34. Flying sardines

    Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:
    April 1st, 2009 at 7:34 am
    You’re just making a joke, Phil! This is obviously Venus.


    O’ course its NOT Venus!!!

    This is very clearly Pluto! 😉


    Seriously, well done ‘spirit’ ..

    .. & not to forget ‘Opportunity’ either.

    Keep on going you wonderful, marvellous, brilliant Mars Eexploration Rovers you. Keep on going! :-)

  35. Flying sardines

    Sorry ‘Spirit’. Capital job deserves a capital ‘S’ for ‘Spirit’ too. 😉

  36. Guysmiley

    Blue sky just totally gave it away. Should have gotten your hue and saturation shoopin’ on!

  37. Flying sardines

    Yup. Pi in the (blue) Martian sky thinking we wuz gunna fall 4 that I reckon BA! 😉

  38. I knew that those rovers would attract Martian tourists to see them.

  39. Flying sardines

    @ Guillermo Abramson : (April 1st, 2009 at 8:40 am – somnewhere other than here!)
    Perhaps because April 1 is not the day of jokes here (it’s Dec 28).

    April fools day is already over here in the land of the long white cloud. 😉

    Ah the international dateline. Everywhere else is so far behind the times! 😉

  40. Flying sardines

    @ Eskil : Is nowhere sacred?

    D’uh! Course NOT! 😉

  41. Being April 1, I fully expected the camera to turn on some half-buried cat crap.

  42. shy

    At the beginning I was reading you seriously.

    Then I watch your “Meteorite” and I thought: that is a small rock of volcanic Pozzolana (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pozzolana) or Pumice Stone. I believe that the piece is basaltic.

    At the end when I saw the photo with tourists I realized that today was 1st of April. In Spain the fatidic date is 28th of December.

    A good joke, anyways.

    It would be a very good joke if you do it next 28th of December in english. Nobody expects it 😀

  43. Flying sardines

    @ Hoonser :

    Finally somebody’s taking April Fool’s day seriously.

    If you’re taking April Fools Day seriously then you’re missing the point! 😉

  44. My! What wonderful resolution the rovers seem to be getting lately. I’m surprised the Martians aren’t green, too.

  45. Nigel Depledge

    Nice one, BA. Of course, it’s after noon over here in Europe so you’re too late. But it’s the thought that counts. 😉

  46. Flying sardines

    @ Jonboy Says:

    “Look at the North Star, it’s placed exactly in the right position to guide us at night.”

    NOT when you’re in the *Southern* hemisphere it ain’t handy!

    Sigma Octanitis? Pah!

    Mind you we do get the Southern Cross, the Magellanic Clouds, Omega Centauri, 47 Tucanae, Eta carinae, etc .. Hah! Polaris? You can keep it! I’ll just keep finding south by using the good ole pointers and Achernar anynight! 😉

  47. Flying sardines

    Oh & did I mention Canopus, Alpha Centuari & the best of the Milky Way & Scorpius … you Northernerers jealous yet? 😉

  48. Brian Gefrich

    You are a wonderful person, Phil

  49. You win this round, Plait.

  50. Kris

    This made me laugh. You had me going until I realized there would be far more tourists on Mars at this time of year!

  51. Flying sardines

    @ Romeo Vitelli :

    How long before Spirit and Opportunity show pictures of the giant patoot on the back end of Mars?

    If “patoot” means what I think it means then shame on you for stealing from ‘Futurama’ .. the giant .. ummm … backside of Mars indeed! 😉

  52. Flying sardines

    Can we just say ‘ass’ her phil???

  53. Brandon

    APOD got me at 0600 this morning and now you! AHHH

  54. Mike

    $100 that this will wind up reposted on those “Face on Mars” sites.

  55. Phil, you magnificent bastard!

  56. Asimov fan

    “And they have an odd structure, which immediately struck me as looking like regmaglypts, the little thumbprints or scoop marks you see in lots of meteorites.”

    Is that at term / structure least for real?

    Okay, you got me.

    But are any of tbose from ‘Spirit’ or are these all just from the Galapagos? & can we get anything like the truth right now?

    I suppose its good having one day – or morning (Only international factors with timing as some have noted) – when you cannot take anything without a shaker-full of salt so to speak.

    If only people would treat things as skeptically & warily every day.

    Still, I’ll be glad when its April 2nd – everywhere around the planet.

  57. Grizzly

    Almost. Almost… The ocean gave it away. Nice one.

  58. Asimov fan

    Correction :

    that first line shoulkd read –

    “Is that a term / structure at least for real?

  59. Tunanator

    Mars – Idaho – they’re SO hard to tell apart.

  60. Ryan

    I knew it was fake from the first picture. Resolution was way too high. And then in a later picture I could see a blue sky.

  61. feroxx

    You got me – the second photo strange, but switched to “awesome!” – mode, and I wasn’t sure…

    Well plait, phil.

  62. Naomi

    Didn’t quite have the desired effect, considering I went to the blog specifically to see what you did for April Fool’s Day *grin* And yeah, ocean? Bit of a giveaway XD

    So those were taken in the Galapagos, huh? Awesome 😀 My little geologist heart is already quite eager to explore!

    …So, what ARE the Rovers up to?

  63. weuer

    April fools!

  64. Dan I.


    You suck

    That’s all

  65. TMB

    You had me up until the blue sky. 😉 Nice one!

  66. Harknights

    Well played sir.

  67. rob

    aargh. you got me. i even was looking so intently at the landscape in the pictures that i completely missed the FRACKIN’ OCEAN in the background. doh.

    happy april 1st Phil!

  68. Pac

    You had me until I got the later pictures and went “WTF? Blue?! Damn it…. April Fools!”

  69. Jeff

    I does look like water carved out some of these features, pebble erosion, layers like sedimentary rocks, etc. But we have to be careful about the time intervals involved, rounding rocks might take thousands of years, while layering of sedimentary rocks could take millions. Some of the talus curtains might occur in quick flash floods.

    The scientists are probably thinking water was on Mars for a few hundred million years but not since the formation of Mars, in standing lakes/seas. Since then, there have probably been flash floods due to sudden melting events in permafrost , but not standing water.

    I don’t think life would have had time to evolve in such a transient environment.

  70. XMark

    Hehehe… I was following intently. First WTF moment was seeing a bluish sky but I was thinking maybe that was color enhancement or something. And then a total headsmack at the end. Well played, sir! Hats off to you!

  71. Bob Loblaw

    Happy April Fools day to you too, Phil.

  72. BeinSilly

    Durnit! :-(

    My guess was that April 1st would see the Bad Astronomer (temporarily – like for a day or morning!) convert to becoming a Creationist .. & find teh missing planet Nibiru too! 😉

  73. scotth

    It was photo 3 that raised the first warnings. That looks amazing volcanic for a meteor.

  74. Chris A.

    As someone who lives on a volcanic plain, my baloney meter started twitching as soon as I saw the “meteorite,” which looks a lot more like a volcanic bomb to me! Those “regmaglypts” are gas pockets, as I am constantly pointing out to people who bring me “meteor-wrongs” to identify.

  75. Dang tourists, they ruin every thing. lol

  76. BJN

    I didn’t know Mars had Triassic red beds, but it’s not surprising to see German tourists. They love deserts and will travel far to visit Marlboro Country.

  77. Gary Ansorge

    Missed the ocean. Caught the tourists. Wondered why I wasn’t invited,,,

    Gary 7

  78. Patrick

    Bastard….I was AMAZED…until.

  79. Joe N.

    the images looked really clear for mars rover shots, but you still got me. at the last picture i felt a little sad because it meant everything you said was an april fools joke

  80. Chayanov

    April Fool on me. I was thinking “Wow, those pictures are really clear and detailed” and almost didn’t even look at the last one. I should just stay away from the internet on April 1. Good one, BA!

  81. Reggi

    D’oh! I keep forgetting the date! Hook, line, and sinker. Sigh…

  82. Davidlpf

    I just bought the seventh planet so you know what?
    Your Uranus belongs to me.

  83. Laura

    That was sweet! I thought those blue things in the background looked a lil familiar. So I was very sad at first, but now I can’t help but laugh.

  84. BILL7718

    You terd. Bah.

  85. Drnecropolis

    Darn, that’s the second time somebody has gotten me today! Some unlucky mark is going to get it later!

  86. Sir, I took the liberty of copying and translating your post to my websites for us Spanish-speakers to understand the deepness of this breakthrough.

    I take my hat off to salute you, this is such an amazing prank discovery.

  87. Haha! I saw the photos on flickr and wondered, “why does he have shots of terrain that looks like Mars but isn’t?”


  88. You know, in all the years of spending April Fool’s Day around smart and creative friends, I have never been transported to Mars as part of a joke.

    Bravo, sir!

  89. 😀 I wonder how many people read in awe and jumped with excitement with each new picture… like I did. Usually I don’t believe anything on April Fools Day … now I’ll crawl under the nearest meteorite before my face gets redder than the surface of Mars. Have a great day, Phil!! That was AWESOME!

  90. Donnie B.

    Phil, you’ve been saving those up for this day ever since your trip, haven’t you?

  91. TuckerK

    Oh you bastard!

  92. Chip

    Someone mentioned German tourists on Mars. I think that explains why Mars is so dry. They brought Sham-Wows!

  93. I didn’t quite jump with excitement but you did get to me, because I was recalling Richard Hoagland’s allegations of NASA’s tampering with the colors in the Viking photos, to make the Martian sky look less blue. And, honestly, I started out thinking of how much the first couple of photos in your post reminded me of Georgia red clay.

  94. Joe Meils

    Actually, as I recall, the initial photos from Viking One DID have blue skies… but then they looked down at the color balance chart on the footpad, and adjusted accordingly… (poof!) instant red skies. So Hogeland has it backwards… they were initially shifting the colors to make them less red…

  95. # Joe M Says:
    Phil, you magnificent bastard!

    I hope you read his book(s)!


  96. Joe, that makes sense to me. Having helped with quite a few controlled burns in the forestry business, I know colors wouldn’t look the same under a dusty sky, and that would be even more so with a completely different atmosphere.

  97. Michael Stills

    Having just finished pulling off a very successful April Fools day joke on my 11 year old daughter. I knew I needed to prepare for the inevitable “pay back”. My daughter has become very good and seeing through my deceptions and attempts to get her to believe the unbelievable. So I thought I would sharpen my mind by reading some sound skeptical and reasoned analysis by one of our best minds. You know, so that I would be ready to hear the “lie” in her elaborate and well thought out counter attack. So I came here and walked right into a Martian Trap. Well done.

  98. Clive DuPort

    Well done Phil – you git! Someone once told me the word “gullible” wasn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, so I looked it up…..

  99. Ok, you got me. :)

    I should have recognised that the erosion patterns were where the tourists had sneaked bits of rock for their gardens.

  100. Todd W,

    I had forgotten about that thread. I left a message. You have incredible patience to deal with them as you do. Nice work.

    I’m a bit tired and cranky and have a lot of other things to do, so I am not as patient. Not that you don’t have a lot to do, I am just letting everything get to me. :-)

  101. And here I was marvelling at what high-quality images NASA’s able to get from its rovers these days 😉

  102. J. D. Mack

    Big chuckle when I got to the last photo! Thanks, Phil!

  103. Na

    My god, serves me right for not reading this until April 2nd (well, in my timezone anyway) and not paying attention to the date on the post. I was convinced, even though I couldn’t figure out the picture with the sky (truly, without context, how easy is it to get confused!) and thought the last pic was somehow photoshopped. So much for critical thinking… 😛

  104. I read this article on April,2nd…


  105. dhtroy


    Of all the Web April Fools jokes today, yours was by far, the best.

    It was clean, well done and if you weren’t paying close attention, easy to be fooled.

    You had me, I was even willing to overlook the sharpness of the images and color changes, despite the fact that I know how old those rovers are … I thought … eh … maybe image processing cleaned them up a bit.

    But then … yea .. that blue sky, yea … this isn’t an Arnold movie …

    Well done, you got my vote for best April Fool’s joke.

  106. Thom


    Every attempt to pull an April fools prank on me failed, except this one. Phil you got me hook, line, and sinker.

    Nice one 😀

  107. Sion Hughes

    Argh godsdammit, you utter bastard!

    That was mean, Phil. Mean, mean, mean.

    Good one, though.

  108. CR

    Oh, for the love of…
    I’ve had computer problems that kept me offline for almost two days, and when I came back here, I got so caught up in catching up that I, too, completely misssed THE OCEAN in that pic. D’OH!

    Good luck topping this one next year!

  109. Daniel J. Andrews

    Ah! Nice one, Phil. You got me. Coincidentally like CR above I too missed the ocean for the same reasons CR did. Palm-head. I love getting fooled like this.

  110. PAS

    So, the “Don’t be a jerk” policy doesn’t apply to the posts themselves?

    Well played.

  111. Andrew

    On a serious note, this brings me to the ignorant question of the day for you…if they bother sending something as far as Mars, why aren’t the pictures higher resolution?

  112. :P, while reading the post, I was wondering how the hell NASA got that incredible resolution!

  113. Adam

    It really is amazing how similar the two planets look.

    At first I was skeptical, but as it kept going and going you drew me in. Good job. Awesome joke! 😀

  114. db26

    I think its Thunder Mountain from Disneyworld…

  115. katwagner

    A sucker is born every minute and I am a world class sap. Shoulda majored in geology.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar