NASA's Curiosity rover has photographed a rodent on the surface of Mars! Or a rock. Such is the potentially historic news making waves on sites such as the Huffington Post, which ran a story on the blurred but suggestive photo of what looks like a 'Mars rat' on the rocky plains of the Red Planet. This theory began with a determined speculative blog post from a man in Japan.
NASA sent the Curiosity rover on its $2.5 billion mission to Mars towards the end of 2011, and touched down in Gale Crater via a skycrane several months later. The rover is a highly advanced mobile robot fully equipped with imaging devices, sensors and on-board science laboratory to analyse the Martian soil and rock samples. It even has a powerful laser that can break rocks down into smaller chunks to make it easier to take samples.
Curiosity has made a number of interesting observations that have both supported scientists' previous hypotheses about Earth's nearest planetary neighbour, and also sparked whole new areas of speculation. It has now found evidence that liquid water may once have flowed on the surface of Mars, and has also found evidence of patches of ice just beneath the planet's dusty surface. Earlier this year, NASA were even able to announce that the rover had analysed a rock which appeared to suggest Mars had once boasted all the necessary conditions to support life.
But now, has it answered David Bowie's decades-old conundrum? Is there Life on Mars? Probably not. In spite of the latest images bearing a striking resemblance to a small rat-like rodent, it has to be said that they do also bear a striking resemblance to a small rock formation. And that the rodent is exactly the same colour as the surrounding rocks. Effective camouflage from the Martian fauna? Or is it just a rock?
Given that the Curiosity Rover is not known for travelling at dizzying speeds, it should be a fairly simple task to ascertain whether this shape is rock or rodent, by simply comparing a later image of the same landscape and seeing whether the object has moved or not.
Mars has been riding high in the headlines recently. In addition to the daily images and discoveries beamed from Gale Crater by Curiosity, a Dutch group recently announced plans to establish a human colony on the Red Planet. If Curiosity's image did turn out to be anything more interesting than an excitingly-shaped rock, at least the brave pioneers founding this colony may have something to eat.