April 7, 2012 at 12:13 AM ET
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has captured an elephant on Mars — well, actually, it's an elephant-shaped lava flow in Elysium Planitia on Mars.
The picture provides one more Martian example of the phenomenon known as "pareidolia," in which our eyes and brain can be coaxed to see familiar patterns in unfamiliar settings. Pareidolia is the best explanation for the Face on Mars, the Mermaid on Mars ... and even the Happy Face on Mars.
The Elephant Face on Mars also provides a glimpse of the geological changes that shaped the Red Planet over the course of billions of years.
"Flood lavas cover extensive areas, and were once thought to be emplaced extremely rapidly, like a flood of water," University of Arizona planetary geologist Alfred McEwen, the principal investigator for the orbiter's HiRISE camera, wrote in an image advisory issued on Wednesday.
"Most lava floods on Earth are emplaced over years to decades, and this is probably true for much of the lava on Mars as well," McEwen said. "An elephant can walk away from the slowly advancing flow front. However, there is also evidence for much more rapidly flowing lava on Mars, a true flood of lava. In this instance, maybe this elephant couldn't run away fast enough."
This picture served as today's "Where in the Cosmos" puzzle on the Cosmic Log Facebook page, and it took about an hour for Odies Neel to come up with the full story behind the image. Odies will be getting a pair of 3-D glasses in the mail as a reward — as will Seth Deitch and Jonce Matilovski, who came close to the mark.
Over the past six years, HiRISE (which stands for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) has sent back more than 22,000 images of the Martian surface, including 2,444 3-D anaglyph images that should give those red-blue glasses a good workout. Check out the HiRISE website and NASA's Mars exploration portal page for all the pictures.
There's still more to look forward to on the final frontier: Next Thursday, the big event will be Yuri's Night, a space celebration that commemorates the 51st anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's history-making orbital flight as well as the 31st anniversary of the first space shuttle flight.
The marketing director for Yuri's Night, Veronica Ann Zabala-Aliberto, discussed the past, present and future of spaceflight with me on the "Virtually Speaking Science" talk show, which airs on BlogTalkRadio and in the Second Life virtual world. Give a listen to the hourlong podcast, which you can get via BlogTalkRadio or iTunes — and check out Veronica's screengrab of our avatars sitting together in the Second Life auditorium:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.