Guess the planet!

By Phil Plait | December 2, 2010 7:00 am

If I had to guess what planet this picture was from, I’d certainly think Mars. Wouldn’t you?


The color, the forbidding landscape, the volcanic cones seemingly untouched by time… it must be Mars right? Nope. It’s Earth.

This picture was taken by astronauts on the International Space Station back in March 2008. It shows a region of Saudi Arabia called Harrat Khaybar, an extensive lava field which is pretty recent. And I mean that geologically as well as in human terms; the eruptions may have started 5 million years ago, but some were only a couple of thousand years ago.

This area is incredibly dry today, but these types of cones form when lava mixes with water. So not too long ago this area must have been a lot wetter, but then something happened to dry it out. Now it’s volcanic rock, sand, and gravel as far as the eye can see…

… just like Mars. It goes to show you: the best way to understand the place you live is not only to study it, but to put it in context as well. Studying other worlds can only help us in figuring out how our own works.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (18)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    From the SF novel ‘Venus of Dreams’ by Pamela Sargent (Bantam, 1986) :

    [On Space Exploration / terraforming Venus}

    “Earth will benefit in the end, and not just because there’s a new world to go to, but because of what we’ll learn.”
    – Page 237.

    Venus, Mars, so many other worlds tell us so much by way of comparison – and, yes, can sometimes even be confused with our own.

    Would I have guessed the planet?

    Well, the bit there about “you’d think this was Mars wouldn’t you?” kinda implied to me that it wasn’t Mars but otherwise I could easily have thought so, yeah.

    You might’ve made this multiple choice BA, something like :

    Is this photo from A) Mars, B) Earth C) Venus or D) Io.

    That might have kept the guessing going longer.

    Thinking of long time spells – 2008? Why post this now? Why not I ‘spose but still 2008 was quite some time ago now ..

  2. Funny you should say that today, when we all speculate that NASA’s big press announcement will probably be about arsenic-based life form on Earth… instead of Titan… or Rhea…

  3. Messier Tidy Upper

    BTW. Funny you should mention Mars – there is actually an “Arabia” on Mars as well as on Earth :

    Ironic, that Terra (“Earth” in Latin or so I gather) is included as part of the Martian place name also.

    I hope one day we have a future where that gets confusing for those trying to work out which “Arabia” is meant.

    M : “So Larissa where are you going next.”
    L : “Well Miranda having just seen my namesake moon orbiting Neptune, I’m heading for Arabia next.”
    M : “Arabia terra?”
    L :”That’s the one.”
    M :”Wait .. Terra as in the planet or Terra as in the Martian terrain name?” 😉

    Wonder how similar the two “Arabia’s” really are – and if we should consider sending some oil drilling rigs up there? 😉

  4. Daniel J. Andrews

    I wouldn’t have thought Mars, but I would have picked a moon (Jupiter’s, Saturn’s).

  5. QuietDesperation

    It’s Planet X! 😯

    Actually it was easy to guess because [1] what looks like water erosion and [2] you asked. 😉

  6. Gary Ansorge

    Since we use petrochemicals as feedstock for fertilizer, lubricants and so many other chemicals, I expect Exxon/Mobil will still be a BIG player in space, harvesting the Moons of Jupiter. So many with methane, etc, just waiting to be used.

    Gary 7

  7. Oli

    Earth – otherwise you wouldn’t ask.

  8. I guessed Earth, but only because I’ve been reading your blog since pre-Hive-Overmind days, and know you wouldn’t have asked otherwise. :-)

    Now, those little white spots within several of the cones look like some of them are still active, and venting steam. (Look at them in the larger image on the NASA site.) Or are those just clouds or something else in “just the right place”?

  9. Bethany

    There will be only 3 more planetary spacecraft to study mars and beyond because there is no fuel for more spacecraft. The fuel that is used is the non-weapons grade Pu-238. The US has not made this fuel for years and we’ve been buying our current supply from Russia. However, Russia is now holding out for a better deal because they know how badly we need it.

    The DOE Startup Plan for Plutonium238 Production for Radioisotope Power Systems: Report to Congress states that,
    “In concrete terms, without a new production capability for Pu‐238, the United States will no longer have the means to explore the majority of the solar system, including significant portions of the Moon and Mars, by the end of this decade.”

    Without funding to restart production of Pu-238 the United States planetary space program loses its leadership role in the planetary sciences.

    Contact your congressman.

  10. I still have such a hard time convincing my brain to interpret these photos correctly. I’ve been reading your blog for over a year, so I must have looked carefully at similar crater and mountain pictures 20x? Still I have study the shadows carefully and my brain rarely converts it. Only once did it do it right and that was on the one you used to explain it and trick us.

    I think my visual brain is broken.

  11. John Paradox

    I can guess the planet in ___ pixels!


  12. Grand Lunar

    I did sort of guess it was Earth. Was a matter of instinct I suppose.

    Even so, it’s still very cool.

  13. Tribeca Mike

    Neat photo. At first glance, I thought it was Death Valley, on second glance the area just north of southern Arizona’s Catalina Mountains (quite spectacular viewed from the air or on the ground). Speaking of Mars, I shutter to think what would happen to NASA Mars exploration funding if certain members of the House Committee on Science and Technology were to find out there’s an Arabia Quadrangle on the red planet. It just might all get allocated to the Armed Services Committee for the purposes of a future invasion. No Blood For Lava!

  14. jennyxyzzy

    I’m with QuietDesperation – my first guess was Earth, because of apparent water erosion. Well, that and the fact that the desktop picture of my computer is an image of the caldera of OlympusMons, and this photo looks nothing like that!

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Tribeca Mike :

    I shutter to think what would happen to NASA Mars exploration funding if certain members of the House Committee on Science and Technology were to find out there’s an Arabia Quadrangle on the red planet. It just might all get allocated to the Armed Services Committee for the purposes of a future invasion. No Blood For Lava!

    Ah, the silly Left Wing Conspiracy delusions about international politics raise their ugly head again. Sigh. :roll:

    Look the very fact that Arabia remains unoccupied by the West despite its oil wealth and extremist Islamism – and being the country of origin for most of the 9-11 terrorists – is proof positive that the “Coalition of the Willing” (mostly the US but also many of its allies incl. Australia) did NOT wage “war for oil” as the mindless slogan goes.

    As does the fact that we’re giving the liberated Iraq back to the Iraqi people complete with its oil fields. If we had really just wanted oil, we’d have invaded and occupied Saudi Arabia instead.

    We did NOT set out to conquer Muslims or take their oil and convert them to better ways of thinking and behaving.

    The West did NOT start the war on [Jihadist] Terror. Al Quaida and the other Muslim groups did. 9-11 was this war’s Pearl Harbour. How soon and how easily some people seem to forget that.

    Make no mistake – the conflict is NOT about oil or “Western imperialism.”

    (&, btw, there’s no such thing these days; just corporations doing business. Mostly owned by, or indebted to, the Chinese. Colonialism ended a century or so ago and its getting more than a bit old & stale as weak excuses go.)

    This modern war is about the followers of the Islamist ideology wanting to destroy our civilisation (all civilisations actually but starting with us for now) and put the whole planet under Sharia law.

    You know that Muslim system of “justice” where blasphemy & apostasy – changing from Islam to some other way of thinking, homosexuality, drinking booze and letting your women outside un-burka-clad and/or unaccompanied by male jailors relatives gets punished by death but beating your wives (yes, plural!) is fine provided you stick to only a certain sized stick. :-(

    Yes, I know, I know, not *ALL* Muslims believe this strict interpretation of their cult or are committed to carrying out terrorism. But too many of them do. :-(

  16. Gary Ansorge

    15. Messier Tidy Upper

    Ok, Dude, most of the time you have something interesting to say but about Muslims you know very little. I lived in Saudi Arabia for roughly 13 years(1950-1952, 1960-1964, 1978-1984 and 1989-1990).
    Arabs are among the most generous people I’ve ever met. Easy going and quite willing to accept that Americans are,,,a little weird(my nick name among those who knew me was “That CRAZY American” said with considerable affection).

    Are there whack jobs among Muslims? Are there whack jobs amongst Christians? Have you EVER met a population of humans w/o such? The Whackers among us will use ANY tool (sic) to achieve their goals, which are basically about control and self aggrandizement,ie, they want power.
    ,,,but most Saudis could care less. On a scale of 1 to 100, the average Saudi ranks family first, religion second and wealth and power,,,somewhere around the middle of all that,,work, as a means of defining oneself, ranks very low on their scale.

    The Burka was a means of protecting their women from the depredations of the Turkish military(when Arabia was controlled by the Ottoman Empire). It’s a CUSTOM of protection which they have yet to out grow,,,but they’re trying. (Which is also why they had the Custom of male family members escorting their women when they were out of the house.)Note that the Quran is an amalgamation of the Jewish Old Testament and the teachings of the Great Prophet Yesua(AKA Jesus). Mohammed was an illiterate sheep herder, albeit a rich one and he listened to the (mostly Jewish) traders who passed thru Arabia and told tales of their religion and that new upstart, Christianity. He ripped off those religions shamelessly. His objective was to provide a unifying belief system that would replace the old tribal system of governance and competition. The Custom of female genital mutilation was tribal custom and never had anything to do with Islam. Mohammed included numerous protections for females. I attended a Saudi engineers wedding, where the Matawa spent several hours reading from the Quran regarding his responsibilities to his wife. Familial responsibility is of paramount importance to a good muslim.

    As I’ve noted before, Jihad means ONLY “Great effort in the service of God”. It doesn’t require war to convert the heathens. To put it another way, it requires a good muslim to be exactly as aggressive in promoting their religion as a good Christian.

    Anyone who has been in the middle of a bar brawl has a pretty good idea of the increase in aggressiveness due to alcohol and since Islam eschews violence in general(at least in the personal sense), it’s logical for them to ban alcohol.

    Osama bin Lauden wanted to take over control of Arabia from the Saud clan. His objective required separating the Saudis from American support and the best way he found to do that was by attacking us with Saudi extremists. Worked really well, didn’t it?

    It’s funny that they have prohibitions against gays, since the average arab has few such compunctions. It’s possible for boys to have boy friends as long as they’re able to have sex with girls as well. One might say they’re pretty tolerant of bi-sexual behavior as long as it doesn’t interfere with reproduction.

    ,,,on the other hand, loving your goat/camel/donkey IS punishable with 50 lashes,,,

    Arabs are just as good(and bad) as anyone else. Religion has exactly as much effect on them as it does on us, which is to say, not much. But it IS the Law of their land, so they at least pay lip service to it.

    ,,,by the way, the only reason Americans didn’t obtain the ability to build churches in Arabia when we first started developing their oil was because,,,we never asked,,,

    Gary 7


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