1976 image from Mars Viking, in which some people believed they saw a face.
1976 image from Mars Viking, in which some people believed they saw a face. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Full image and caption ›

Remember as a kid looking up at the blue sky and seeing a cloud that looked like a lamb, or a horse, or some other creature or familiar object on Earth? That same visual/mind phenomenon goes on with space images that have rocks, dust, and other natural patterns.

This happens because our human brains often try to see shapes that are familiar, something we can relate to. It happens with clouds, rocks, celestial bodies (e.g. the "man in the Moon," and the "face on Mars").

Faces on Mars as it fades
The "face" does not stand the test of time. The image on the left was taken by NASA's Viking spacecraft in 1976. The middle and right images were from Mars Global Surveyor's Mars Orbiter Camera in 1998, showing the "face" eroded over time, looking much more like a natural feature. (Viking image enlarged to 3.3 times original resolution, Mars Orbiter Camera images decreased by 3.3 times); right image has brightness inverted. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Full image and caption ›
You might think the hand looks like a medical X-ray, but it is actually a cloud of material ejected from a star that exploded.
You might think the hand looks like a medical X-ray, but it is actually a cloud of material ejected from a star that exploded. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/McGill. Full image and caption ›

There's even a word for this phenomenon—pareidolia (pronounced pare-i-DOH-lee-uh). Dictionaries describe it as a human tendency to see recognizable shapes in objects or data that are otherwise not familiar to us.

There are some common examples on Earth, such as the profile of President John F. Kennedy on the Hawaiian Island of Maui.

Here at NASA, we often hear from people who think they see something familiar in an image from Mars, or another planet, or somewhere else in the cosmos. And it's true—they do see something familiar, but it's actually because they're experiencing pareidolia.

And we have examples of pareidolia we've heard about in space images.

One well-known example is seen in this image of a nebula, which some people perceived as a hand X-ray.

More Mars Pareidolia

There was the time people saw what they thought was a Sasquatch-shaped rock in images from the Spirit rover taken in 2008.

You can use this slider to see an original image, then slide to reveal details of the area, including examples of pareidolia.

These two images show a Mars Spirit rover view of an area on the West Valley on Mars with some examples of pareidolia). Move slider to right to see original image, move to the left to see pareidolia. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Hartwell. Full caption (Left) | Full caption (Right)
A Tweet by the team for the HiRISE camera onboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the spacecraft that took the image that was the source of the Muppet "sighting." Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona. Full image and caption ›

Other Mars missions have also seen interesting objects, and people have assigned them human-relatable shapes, such as 2018 images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that appear to show a Muppet on Mars.

More Cosmic Confusion

Some space enthusiasts and image processors alter raw imagery downlinked from NASA spacecraft and share fan-made works online. The resulting images and video are fun to look at, but not scientifically accurate. In an ideal world, imagery like that would be clearly marked as an illustration or dramatization. But that doesn't always happen, or a caption gets lost or changed as it's shared on social media, so things can become murky and confusing.

One such catchy image that has made the rounds purports to show a Mars skyline, with clear views of three planets lined up in the sky—Earth, Venus, and Jupiter. It is not a NASA image and is not real, but it is an appealing-looking computer-generated image.

Complicating things even more—over the years NASA has sent multiple spacecraft to Mars, including several landers, rovers, orbiters, and even a helicopter. Sometimes, people get spacecraft images and video mixed up, so it can be hard to tell what image was taken when, by which spacecraft, and whether it's a legitimate NASA image.

So What's a Space Fan to Do?

You may wonder—how, can I figure out which images are real and which are not?

Any official NASA news or imagery will be shared via an official agency communications channel, including the extensive image and video databases. To search our primary imagery database, see: images.nasa.gov. For Mars images, see the raw image gallery.

And if you find an interesting artifact in an image on a NASA site, it's often the result of wind and nature carving interesting shapes in the terrain. For example, depending on what a rock is made of, wind erosion can polish and sculpt it into a strange-looking feature. See some examples here. And a spot in the Martian sky... that could be a speck of dust on a camera.

So armed with this knowledge, enjoy the images from space!

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