A photograph of what looks amazingly like a doorway carved into a rock face on Mars has sent the internet into a tizz.
The snap, taken by the Mars Curiosity rover and released by NASA this week, looks for all the world like an entry into the underground home of an intelligent alien race.
Unfortunately for space enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists, the reality is far less exciting.
Professor Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College London said it was probably just a regular rock formation.
“The crack is a fracture and they are abundant on Mars and Earth – no need for marsquakes to produce them,” Professor Gupta, who has worked on the Curiosity mission with NASA, told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.
“There is nothing at all strange in the image – these are just normal geological processes.”
Elsewhere, a NASA spokesperson told myth-debunking website Snopes that the image is also an extreme close-up. The crack that looks like a doorway in the Martian snap is actually on about 45 centimetres long.
“There are linear fractures throughout this outcrop, and this is a location where several linear fractures happen to intersect,” he said.
It’s not the first time regular geological structures on the surface of planets have been mistaken for signs of alien life.
Last year, the Chinese lunar exploration mission identified what appeared to be a mysterious hut on the moon. It turned out to be a boulder.
In other Mars-related developments, NASA said on Wednesday that one of its spacecrafts on the planet was headed for a dusty demise.
The InSight lander is losing power because of the dust on its solar panels. NASA said it would keep using the spacecraft’s seismometer to register marsquakes until the power petered out, likely in July. Then flight controllers will monitor InSight until the end of this year before calling everything off.
“There really hasn’t been too much doom and gloom on the team. We’re really still focused on operating the spacecraft,” said Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Bruce Banerdt, the principal scientist.
Since landing on Mars in 2018, InSight has detected more than 1300 marsquakes; the biggest one, a magnitude 5.0, was a fortnight ago.
It will be NASA’s second Mars lander lost to dust: A global dust storm took out Opportunity in 2018. In InSight’s case, it’s been a gradual gathering of dust, especially in the past year.
Curiosity is still going strong, thanks to nuclear power – along with NASA’s other functioning spacecraft on the Martian surface.
The space agency may rethink solar power in the future for Mars, said planetary science director Lori Glaze. It might also experiment with new panel-clearing tech or aim for the less-stormy seasons.
InSight is generating one-tenth of the power from the sun that it did upon arrival. Deputy project manager Kathya Zamora Garcia said the lander initially had enough power to run an electric oven for one hour and 40 minutes. Now it’s down to 10 minutes max.
The InSight team anticipated the dust build-up but hoped wind might clean off the solar panels.
Another instrument, dubbed the mole, was supposed to burrow five metres underground to measure the internal temperature of Mars. But the German digger never got deeper than half a metre because of the unexpected composition of the red dirt. It was declared dead at the beginning of last year.