The Houston Chronicle caused a bit of a stir yesterday by posting the above image with the following caption:
"A NASA camera on Mars has captured what appears to be artificial light emanating outward from the planet's surface. The photo, beamed millions of miles from Mars to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was taken last week, apparently by one of two NASA rovers on the red planet.:
Firstly, I'm not sure what "apparently by one of two NASA rovers" means, unless you think either a) there's something else wandering around Mars sending back pictures or b) the NASA rovers aren't on Mars at all. The true bit is that Curiosity took a picture with a streak of bright pixels in it, but it's certainly (almost certainly) not aliens. After some rampant and more than slightly crazy speculation, JPL tried to calm everybody down by explaining what probably happened:
"In the thousands of images we've received from Curiosity, we see ones with bright spots nearly every week," said Justin Maki of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., leader of the team that built and operates the Navigation Camera. "These can be caused by cosmic-ray hits or sunlight glinting from rock surfaces, as the most likely explanations."
Curiosity has so many cameras that it's fairly straightforward to check and see whether things like this are image artifacts or actual Martian surface features: if you don't see the same thing in a picture from a different camera taken at the same time, you can be pretty sure that it's just something messing with one of your sensors.
While cosmic-ray hits or sunlight glinting off of a rock are the most likely explanations, JPL can't conclusively rule out a Martian with high-powered flashlight. In other words, it still could be aliens (but probably not).
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