'Bright light' on Mars is just an image artifact

Apr 08, 2014 by Nancy Atkinson, Universe Today
A cosmic ray hit on a camera on the Curiosity rover produced what looks like a ‘light’ on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

Thanks to everyone who has emailed, Tweeted and texted me about the "artificial bright light" seen on Mars. And I'm so sorry to disappoint all the folks who were hoping for aliens, but what you see above is just an image artifact due to a cosmic ray hitting the right-side navigation camera on the Curiosity rover.

If you do a little research, you can see that the light is not in the left-Navcam image that was taken at the exact same moment (see that image below). Imaging experts agree this is a cosmic ray hit, and the fact that it's in one 'eye' but not the other means it's an imaging artifact and not something in the terrain on Mars shooting out a beam of light.

Update: according to Alan Boyle at NBC News, NASA imaging scientists think it could also be either a well-placed flash of reflected sunlight, or light shining through a chink in Curiosity's camera housing.

You can see the whole series of images from the right Navcam here.

The left-Navcam image from April 4, 2014 shows no ‘light.’ Credit: NASA/JPL.

Cosmic ray hits happen frequently on spacecraft that don't have the benefit of being in Earth's thick atmosphere. And frequently, people seem to get excited about what shows up in imagery that have been affected. For example, one guy thought there was a huge base on Mars based on some he saw on Google Mars.

Getting hit by a cosmic ray can have some serious consequences for a spacecraft—sometimes it can put them into what's called "safe mode" where only basic functions operate, or other times it can mess up data (like what happened with Voyager 2 in 2010 where the data sent back to Earth was unreadable). Usually, engineers are able to fix the problem and get the spacecraft back in working order.

Cosmic rays can even show up in imagery taken by astronauts on the International Space Station, like this one by astronaut Don Pettitt in 2012:

'Bright light' on Mars is just an image artifact
A cosmic ray hit on a camera appears as a segmented line in the image. Credit: NASA/Don Pettit..

Astronauts also report seeing flashes—even with their eyes closed—whenever zip through their eyeballs. You can read more about that here.

And so far, none of these blips, lights or flashes seen on space imagery has ever been "because aliens."

If you really want to see some amazing things, look at the imagery taken by Curiosity in its currently location on Mars. See all the raw images here, or see some really great colorized and enhanced versions on 'amateur' imaging blogs like those by Stuart Atkinson, James Canvin, Damia Bouic, Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society, or the work done by Ken Kremer.

Additionally, if you want to see bright lights associated with Mars, all you have to do is look up in the sky at night and see Mars shining brilliantly in the sky right now. Mars is in opposition, where it is closest to the Earth, and the "official" closest moment happens today, April 8th! Find out more about how to see it or watch different webcasts taking place today at our previous article here.

Mars, the Full Moon and Spica rising in the east on April 14th. Created using Stellarium.

And for those of you who think we shouldn't give "air time" to nutty claims like lights on Mars, it is our policy to address and debunk such claims (for example, see our article debunking the latest end of the world claim) in order to make sure the real story and good doses of reality are out there, too, and available to people who are looking for the real story.

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User comments : 34

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HannesAlfven
4.3 / 5 (7) Apr 08, 2014
Re: "what you see above is just an image artifact due to a cosmic ray hitting the right-side navigation camera"

That's an interesting coincidence that this cosmic ray apparently hits the navigation camera at a point that is precisely aligned with the landscape's horizon in the photograph.
Caliban
5 / 5 (2) Apr 08, 2014
Interesting, indeed.

Plus, a claimed second photo from the previous day:

http://www.dailyg...-Horizon

Who knows?
cantdrive85
1.8 / 5 (5) Apr 08, 2014
Interesting, indeed.

Plus, a claimed second photo from the previous day:

http://www.dailyg...-Horizon

Who knows?

That is some kind of magical "cosmic ray"!
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Apr 08, 2014
Re: "what you see above is just an image artifact due to a cosmic ray hitting the right-side navigation camera"

That's an interesting coincidence that this cosmic ray apparently hits the navigation camera at a point that is precisely aligned with the landscape's horizon in the photograph.
Prrhaps it's plasma physics. Did you think of that ?

I just read a very good book for anyone interested. It's called The Martian about an astronaut in the near future who gets left behind on mars. Very plausible hard scifi.
Mimath224
not rated yet Apr 08, 2014
Aw shucks...there was I thinking it was a massive dome reflection...or a giant camera taking a flash shot of Curiosity ha!
Looks like a b/w image, is there a color image print somewhere? Also, the brighness seems to cover the moutains in the b/g but the resolution is good enough to see if shadows are cast from the horizon or not.
Sinister1812
1 / 5 (1) Apr 09, 2014
Why then is it in the same location in both photos?

The link of Caliban's shows two photos where the camera has moved, but the "light" is still in the same position.
FineStructureConstant
3 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2014
That is some kind of magical "cosmic ray"!

Nah, looks like a recently-landed plasmoid to me. Definitely. You just have to blow up the image a bit and you can see it clearly. No doubt about it. It'll be there to consume static electric energy in the Martian dust matrix complex-thingummy.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (5) Apr 09, 2014
That is some kind of magical "cosmic ray"!

Nah, looks like a recently-landed plasmoid to me. Definitely. You just have to blow up the image a bit and you can see it clearly. No doubt about it. It'll be there to consume static electric energy in the Martian dust matrix complex-thingummy.

Update 2;
It's a shiny rock! A magical shiny rock that reflects sunlight in just the right directions...

Or it's an electrified dust devil, just as it appears to be. The blackened tracks left behind by those electric dust devils can be seen here.
http://www.esa.in..._of_Mars
barakn
4.8 / 5 (5) Apr 09, 2014
Just for laughs, explain why this dust devil doesn't appear in the left navcam image taken simultaneously and pointed in the same direction.
antialias_physorg
4.4 / 5 (7) Apr 09, 2014
It's a good example how to tell nutjobs from real scientist apart: nutjobs go jump to the most outrageously improbable conclusion immediately without even considering much more probable alternatives - while scientists first try to look at all the most mundane sources and only if all of those don't provide a clue will they slowly move to the more improbable ones.

Some may think that the latter is boring. But is the way science works. Slow and steady wins the race. Always.
dramamoose
1 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2014
Let me start out by saying that it may totally be a coincidence and maybe it is just a cosmic , but I do think it's interesting that the picture from the day before available here: http://mars.jpl.n...mp;s=588 seems to show a reflection at the exact same spot (when compared to the horizon).
It'd be a shame if they didn't at least try to get a closer look.
cantdrive85
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 10, 2014
Just for laughs, explain why this dust devil doesn't appear in the left navcam image taken simultaneously and pointed in the same direction.

...what you don't see above is just an image artifact due to a clump of dark matter hitting the left-side navigation camera on the Curiosity rover...

Sinister1812
1 / 5 (3) Apr 10, 2014
It looks like some sort of geyser erupting to me.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2014
It's a good example how to tell nutjobs from real scientist apart: nutjobs go jump to the most outrageously improbable conclusion immediately without even considering much more probable alternatives - while scientists first try to look at all the most mundane sources and only if all of those don't provide a clue will they slowly move to the more improbable ones.

Some may think that the latter is boring. But is the way science works. Slow and steady wins the race. Always.

Yeah, It's completely improbable to consider a common natural phenomena such as electric discharge. Lightning doesn't really occur on earth, or any other planet for that matter, the "lightning" we see in the clouds are merely figments of our imagination and are nothing but reflections of swamp gas and other such none electrical phenomena. Oh, and dust devils NEVER happen on Mars...
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 10, 2014
So mr electrician I suppose your explanation for these ruts:
http://mars.jpl.n...18M_.JPG

-would be electric tornados?
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (2) Apr 10, 2014
The idea that tornadoes and other natural vortices as being electric discharge is not mine. Peter Thompson explains the 'charge sheath vortex' here;
http://www.peter-...dex.html

There are a number of anomalous phenomena associated with tornadoes that can be explained by adding an electrical aspect.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Apr 10, 2014
The idea that tornadoes and other natural vortices as being electric discharge is not mine. Peter Thompson explains the 'charge sheath vortex' here;
http://www.peter-...dex.html

There are a number of anomalous phenomena associated with tornadoes that can be explained by adding an electrical aspect.
Seriously what ARE these ruts?? They go every which way.
http://mars.jpl.n...66M_.JPG
http://mars.jpl.n...50M_.JPG

What could have made them? Damn strange.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (2) Apr 11, 2014
The idea that tornadoes and other natural vortices as being electric discharge is not mine. Peter Thompson explains the 'charge sheath vortex' here;
http://www.peter-...dex.html


What could have made them? Damn strange.

Dust devils would be the simplest explanation. Those features could very well be the foci of the discharge.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Apr 11, 2014
What could have made them?

Marsquakes?
Mars should also be impacted on a more frequent basis with meteorites than Earth (given the wispy atmosphere) which could cause all kinds of seismic activity.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Apr 11, 2014
What could have made them?

Marsquakes?
Mars should also be impacted on a more frequent basis with meteorites than Earth (given the wispy atmosphere) which could cause all kinds of seismic activity.
Well they don't look like cracks. Harmonic vibrations? Note the one in this picture which looks distinctly hexagonal.
http://mars.jpl.n...66M_.JPG

Moon craters and the cloud pattern at saturns pole are also hexagonal.

I have to agree they do look like something dust devils would have left.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (2) Apr 11, 2014
What could have made them?

Marsquakes?
Mars should also be impacted on a more frequent basis with meteorites than Earth (given the wispy atmosphere) which could cause all kinds of seismic activity.
Well they don't look like cracks. Harmonic vibrations? Note the one in this picture which looks distinctly hexagonal.
http://mars.jpl.n...66M_.JPG

Moon craters and the cloud pattern at saturns pole are also hexagonal.

I have to agree they do look like something dust devils would have left.

Electric discharge can also explain the polygonal structures found throughout nature, such as those above mentioned craters, Saturn's pole, not to mention hexagonal galaxies and hurricane eye walls.
Modernmystic
5 / 5 (1) Apr 11, 2014
So a cosmic ray hit's the same spot, consecutively...

Maybe I'm misunderstanding cosmic rays in a truly abysmal fashion if this is actually possible much less plausible.

That being said, I think that even the cosmic ray scenario is more likely than little green men...
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 11, 2014
Electric discharge can also explain the polygonal structures found throughout nature, such as those above mentioned craters, Saturn's pole, not to mention hexagonal galaxies and hurricane eye wall
Oh I'm sure but so can science.

"Solidified basalts comprising a lunar crust of thickness 10 to 50 km characteristic of the earliest stage in lunar evolution are shown to have a large-scale hexagonal pillar structure, due to the effects of shrinkage. Results of experimental simulations of the propagation in this hexagonal pillar structure of the shock wave generated by the impact of a meteorite of diameter 10 km and mass 10 to the 15th kg on the lunar crust are then presented which demonstrate the pushing away from a central circular shock of pillars resting on a low-friction surface in a hexagonal pattern."
barakn
4.2 / 5 (5) Apr 11, 2014
Well they don't look like cracks. Harmonic vibrations? Note the one in this picture which looks distinctly hexagonal.
http://mars.jpl.n...66M_.JPG

Moon craters and the cloud pattern at saturns pole are also hexagonal.

I have to agree they do look like something dust devils would have left.

It's not like permafrost can create structures like that. Oh, wait... http://www.usperm...olys.JPG http://environmen...6449.jpg http://www.usperm...olys.JPG
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (1) Apr 11, 2014
Electric discharge can also explain the polygonal structures found throughout nature, such as those above mentioned craters, Saturn's pole, not to mention hexagonal galaxies and hurricane eye wall
Oh I'm sure but so can science.


Electric discharge is a completely natural phenomena, are you suggesting there is no "science" for lightning? An explanation of electric discharge is no less sciency than your long winded explanation.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (1) Apr 11, 2014
Well they don't look like cracks. Harmonic vibrations? Note the one in this picture which looks distinctly hexagonal.
http://mars.jpl.n...msl-raw-

It's not like permafrost can create structures like that. Oh, wait...

The fact that they don't look anything like each other apparently doesn't faze you. But thanks for posting that, it's a perfect example of how you handle that moment...
Skepticus_Rex
not rated yet Apr 12, 2014
Let me start out by saying that it may totally be a coincidence and maybe it is just a cosmic , but I do think it's interesting that the picture from the day before available here: http://mars.jpl.n...mp;s=588 seems to show a reflection at the exact same spot (when compared to the horizon).
It'd be a shame if they didn't at least try to get a closer look.


Here is the left Navcam from the same time index:

http://mars.jpl.n...mp;s=588

Both cameras should have seen the same or very nearly the same thing. Only one navcam shows the anomaly at the same time, significantly lessening the likelihood that this is anything other than an image artifact.
Osiris1
not rated yet Apr 12, 2014
Quit being apologists for NSA propaganda! This article is a lie and a cover story, period! Whatever it realllllly is we will never know the real truth. The government knows...a bit...more, but is afraid and/or unwilling to tell it. Thanks to some secret treaty, probably.
Skepticus_Rex
not rated yet Apr 13, 2014
What has the NSA got to do with NASA? Nothing. Looks to me like artifacts. Both navcams would have seen close to the same thing were it anything but graphic artifacting caused by cosmic radiation. But, the navcams didn't see the same thing, or even anything close.
Caliban
not rated yet Apr 13, 2014
Let me start out by saying that it may totally be a coincidence and maybe it is just a cosmic , but I do think it's interesting that the picture from the day before available here: http://mars.jpl.n...mp;s=588

Both cameras should have seen the same or very nearly the same thing. Only one navcam shows the anomaly at the same time, significantly lessening the likelihood that this is anything other than an image artifact.


@SkeptR,

Have a closer look(pull up both images in your browser, and toggle back'n'forth), and you will notice that navcam leftB image is at slightly lower angle relative to apparent horizon, and a foreground ridge blocks the leftB camera view of the area imaged by rightB camera which contains the anomaly.

For an (NASA) imaging specialist to overlook this detail is...well --you tell me what it is.

Whatever it is, it smells of fish...

Skepticus_Rex
not rated yet Apr 13, 2014
That does potentially seem to be the case with the linked photos from the day previous, but that is not the case with the photos from the navcams on the actual day of the photos being discussed in the article.

Navcam Left B:
http://mars.jpl.n...62M_.JPG

Navcam Right B:
http://mars.jpl.n...62M_.JPG

You will see the artifacting there, even with the navcams at about the same level. No ridge is blocking anything there in those photos.
Caliban
not rated yet Apr 13, 2014
That does potentially seem to be the case with the linked photos from the day previous, but that is not the case with the photos from the navcams on the actual day of the photos being discussed in the article.

Navcam Left B:
http://mars.jpl.n...62M_.JPG

You will see the artifacting there, even with the navcams at about the same level. No ridge is blocking anything there in those photos.


My point was intended to be that there are two instances of this phenomena, on successive days, andonly one instance is addressed.

As for Sol 589, yes the images you link appear to bear this interpretation out, but I'm sure you've noticed that the image quality is far from being sufficient to do so definitively, and in any case the idea of a cosmic ray strike can be safely ruled out.

The camera shroud chink may be viable.

Or, at least it's a possibility.
Skepticus_Rex
not rated yet Apr 13, 2014
It would not be possible to address the previous day as one could address the day that is discussed in the article because the field of view in one navcam was partly blocked by a ridge on that previous day.
Skepticus_Rex
not rated yet Apr 14, 2014
I neglected to point out that even a bright reflection probably would have shown a brighter 'aura' shining over the area on the previous Sol. I see nothing in that image indicative of a reflective object, but because of the blocked area it would be much more difficult to address it than with the same place being clearly seen by both navcams. I think it would also be important to look at the other cams to see if any other data can be gleaned from them. Whether that was done or not remains to be seen.

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