National Geographic Daily News
This image from the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover includes a bright spot near the upper left corner. The sun is in the same direction, west-northwest, above the frame. Bright spots appear in images from the rover nearly every week. Typical explanations for them are cosmic rays hitting the light detector or sunlight glinting from rocks.

Bright lights, like the one seen here (upper left), appear in images sent from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity nearly every week. They could be caused by the glint of sunlight on rocks or by cosmic rays hitting the rover's light detector.

PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL-CALTECH

Nadia Drake

for National Geographic

Published April 9, 2014

Recent photos taken by NASA's Mars rover might appear to show a gleaming alien bonfire burning in the distance—at least according to some Internet loonies—but that's not exactly what's happening.

Fact is, there still isn't any evidence for life on Mars. None.

The provocative, shiny smears of light appear in two images snapped by rover Curiosity's navigation camera, one on April 2 and the other on April 3, provoking excitement among some in the UFO-spotting crowd.

The photos come courtesy of the camera's right eye and show nearly vertical bright smudges emerging from a spot near the horizon. Photos of the same spot shot by the camera's left eye, meanwhile, show no such things.

Rather than emanating from an underground Martian disco, the bright spots are probably caused by cosmic rays colliding with the rover's camera or by glinting rocks reflecting the Martian sunlight, said NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Justin Maki, lead imaging scientist for the Curiosity team.

He said that glimmers appearing in similar spots on two consecutive days are oddly coincidental.

Cosmic Rays

It turns out that both cosmic rays and glinting rocks are pretty common on Mars. They've been spotted before. Such rocks have been seen in images sent by several of NASA's Mars rovers, and cosmic rays appear in images that Curiosity sends to Earth each week.

Maki said that one percent of those hundreds of weekly images might include cosmic ray-induced bright spots. But the junked-up pixels normally don't cause much of a stir.

"You'll see cosmic rays every two or three days. Certainly at least once a week," Maki said. "The reason we see so many is because Mars's atmosphere is thinner: It doesn't block as much cosmic radiation as Earth's does."

Cosmic rays are charged particles that fly through the universe in every direction all the time. Every so often they'll collide with something like a camera. One sign of a cosmic ray hit, Maki said, is the appearance of the ray in images taken by one of Curiosity's eyes but not the other.

Glinting rocks, on the other hand, could easily reflect Martian sunlight. But it's not clear why the glimmer would appear just in the right-eye images, Maki said. He notes that one of the left-eye images is obscured, and he says it's not impossible for a glimmer to show up on only one side.

"I'd probably lean toward cosmic rays," Maki said. "But I'd like to keep an open mind."

No Signs of Life

No matter how much we might want our planetary next-door neighbor to host some form of life (let's face it, the solar system would feel a lot less lonely), there's still no evidence for anything living on the red planet.

Of course, that doesn't stop some folks from believing.

This week, Scott Waring posted one of the rover's recent photos to a blog called UFO Sightings Daily.

"This could indicate there there [sic] is intelligent life below the ground and uses light as we do," Waring wrote, referring to the bright spots. The image then made its way around the Internet, prompting explanations from NASA scientists and some wild lay speculation about Martian life.

Finding a Martian bonfire would obviously be spectacular. So would seeing a giant, artificial face on Mars, uncovering alien fossils that hitchhiked to Earth aboard a piece of ejected red planet, or discovering that a shiny, doughnut-shaped rock found by NASA's rover Opportunity is actually alive.

But none of these recent Internet memes are true.

Follow Nadia Drake on Twitter.

78 comments
Joe Edwards
Joe Edwards

First of all, I don't think it's smart to call people loonies just because they are considering that the source of the light could be aliens. Oh, and you're wrong, there was life detected on Mars years ago, by an approved NASA experiment, however it was down played because there other experiments didn't find the same thing. Many scientists now think that experiment gave good results and want to repeat the experiment. It involved placing a food source just under the surface, and if any microbes began  to eat it, they would emit tiny amounts of methane, which would then be detected, well guess what, it happened, after about 40 minutes they started detecting the methane, which could mean only one thing, life! But NASA'a chief at the time told the scientist in charge of the experiment not to tell the people that you found life, because they're other experiments found nothing. 

Second of all, you speak of possible life on Mars as if it's a far out idea, well why then are we spending all this money on rovers to look for it? In the case of this theory that because the light source was detected by only one eye of the camera, and the other eye detected no light at all, it's a fact that the two eye's pictures were seconds apart, so there is a possibility that the light was a flash coming from underground, but by the time the other eye took it's picture it had already gone out. About the light glinting off of a rock, come on, are you serious? In two different pictures I believe on two different days from two different places, the light appeared again in the same spot. Here's an excerpt from your piece "He (Justin Maki) said that glimmers appearing in similar spots on two consecutive days are oddly coincidental." Oddly coincidental indeed, like maybe it really happened. Why do they write evidence like this off instead of investigating further? If it's truly their mission to find life, why do they constantly try to find explanations why it can't be, instead of following up on it just in case they are wrong, that is a possibility you know. These "loonies" are paying for this too by the way, maybe they deserve a little more respect, and maybe NASA should do what it's there to do instead of dismissing any evidence they find with these far out theories of what else it must be. It seems to me that NASA needs an attitude change if it really wants to find life, because when you are trying to find something, you first have to actually look.

Jimmy France
Jimmy France

Aliens on the surface of Mars? What next? Global warming on the surface of the Earth? Yeah right!!! Cosmic rays and weather. Simple.

Heriberto Sanchez Pescador
Heriberto Sanchez Pescador

Such rocks have been seen in images sent by several of NASA's Mars rovers, and cosmic rays appear in images that Curiosity sends to Earth each week. Why not show them?  Regards

Chris Georgiou
Chris Georgiou

May the force be with you..

Oh dont forget, we come in peace!

Ray Wilson
Ray Wilson

Could it be Flight MH370 ?  Another conspiracy theory......

Andrew Cullen
Andrew Cullen

could it not be as simple as some wreckage from the previous missions? ,its not just the rover up there.

Magdalena Rodriguez
Magdalena Rodriguez

That fenomeno has been happening for long time but this is the first time they say something about it!! How many things are happening and  they keep hiding from us or giving just speculations???

claud pipkin
claud pipkin

Maybe it's the Marfa Lights!......................................Swamp  gas?????

claud pipkin
claud pipkin

Bologna...............Them lights be ALIENS.....................:)

David Alan McPartland
David Alan McPartland

How about a icy geiser plume like on some other planets moons? The tiny geiser erupts, the sun hits it just right and the rover snaps a picture. Can you disprove water ice under the sufface of MARS?

Bhavi Ramsu
Bhavi Ramsu

why won't that be a distance volcano erupting there?...

Matthew Osborne
Matthew Osborne

"Wait, what's that? A transport. I'm saved. Over here! Hey! Hey! Help! Please, help!"

victor knopp
victor knopp

do you have to believe in Bigfoot to believe in aliens

Adrian P.
Adrian P.

Is it possible that it maybe water vapour. Due to the low levels of atmosphere, it’s very possible that ice when melting could turn to vapour and dissipate from the surface of Mars. This light spotted by curiosity’s camera could very well be light being picked up through the water vapour escaping the surface of Mars. This is especially likely the case if it is summer on Mars, when temperatures soar and permafrost (seen under the surface of the soil of Mars) melts. I am surprised that the people at NASA didn't identify this as a possibility; also there is evidence to show that the planet emits methane gas, perhaps another possible cause?   

Adrian P.
Adrian P.

I mean, it looks suspiciously just like a hot geyser of water found on earth right? We would most likely expect that water vapour on Mars would act in a similar way surely not? I think it is very much worth the time an effort to get curiosity over there to investigate, it's equipped to analyse exactly this kind of activity! 

teddy Kip
teddy Kip

it could be the lights of race car when  it does a a backflip in Hill Climb Racing from android Game on mars

John Doherty
John Doherty

Just drive over and check the lights out , you are named Curiosity for a reason.

Clark Pahpasay
Clark Pahpasay

its funny that the light is shinning upward but not as a reflective light does on earth. or maby its just a part from other drop zones that were missed but are now found as they get closer to those lost items . just saying.

Hppy Hippi
Hppy Hippi

"none of these recent Internet memes are true." So what, and actually the martian microbes hitching a ride on a meteor is still a valid scientific concept. No rational person thinks this is a bonfire, that is just a ploy, to deny that there is anything unusual at all there. The actual "meme" was that martians were using light the way humans do, ie with technology such as electricity etc.


The only almost truthful statement was buried deep in the article and says " He said that glimmers appearing in similar spots on two consecutive days are oddly coincidental." Notice how this is a stand alone sentence, as if it is a paragraph, with no further comment or analysis ???? Because the explanations offered don't hold water. It can't be a cosmic ray, and if that is a glint, I am farmer brown. Oddly coincidental??? Appearing in the same EXACT spot means it is not cosmic rays. Even the word "similar" is a deception.


Elsewhere in the text the author admits that the left camera picture was "fuzzy"....ahahahahahah so is this proof of life? Nope, but what say we just drive the rover over there and TAKE A CLOSER LOOK ???!!!

Leonito Tabares
Leonito Tabares

i cant wait to see the future......100 years or more good luck everyone praise the almighty..04/10/14


Da Pace
Da Pace

Considering the distance and vertical orientation I think we can dismiss sunlight reflection off a rock surface.  Gamma ray excitation is also troublesome, though, for several reasons. The location of the phenomenon on the crest of a distant hill or ridge and its size relative to its surroundings are quite credible for a light emitting object. The vertical alignment is also credible. Also, when I magnify the high res image I find a phenomenon characterized by a vertical line of pixels with shaded pixels on both sides and top but no shading on the bottom. This is more what I would expect from a light emitting object associated with the surface than excitation of a CCD. I also note that there is almost no shading in the upper right corner of the phenomenon.  Even if the shading effect is an artifact of focal limitation I would expect it to be uniform all round.  The way it is missing in the upper right corner suggests a disturbance operating from right to left. So, for what little it is worth, I am not ready to dismiss the possibility of some other explanation that involves an actual light source such as charged particles venting from something beneath the surface, possibly distorted slightly by the wind. The image taken on April 2 shows a phenomenon that is associated in exactly the same way with a distance ridge or hill line.  That in itself should disqualify gamma rays. It is also vertically oriented, but it appears to be partially obscured by a nearby ridge. As far as their not being reported on the left eye, that could be a matter of timing if the light source is intermittent since there is about a one second delay between images.

Patrick Regan
Patrick Regan

Given the history of governmental agencies relationship with the truth, I'd imagine there are already several BB-Q franchises geared up for settlement

jamie robb
jamie robb

maybe its the glowing fountain of youth.

Andreas Eleftheriou
Andreas Eleftheriou

I bet NASA is in a frenzy trying to work out if it's little green scrap merchants coming to recycle their very expensive remote controlled car. They should turn it round and drive away but with a top speed of 90 meters per hour Curiosity is done for and $2.5 Billion worth of small parts carted off down a floodlit underground Martian bunker ;)

Marc T.
Marc T.

NASA's "guess" is as good as mine.   So, why should I believe them?  Ha!

Gary Branigan
Gary Branigan

What are the two nearly horizontal and parallel lines and the meandering line at the mid ground of the photo?
 Rover tracks or what?

Adrian Sloan
Adrian Sloan

I think I speak for (almost) every single scientist on the planet that, we all wished there was Alien life of any sort on Mars. Sigh! I wonder when we will find it, not "IF" we will.

Frank Drake
Frank Drake

Whoa!  A bonfire with no oxygen to be found?

logoi dream
logoi dream

they keep saying;

"Bright lights, like the one seen here (upper left), appear in images sent from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity nearly every week"

"It turns out that both cosmic rays and glinting rocks are pretty common on Mars. They've been spotted before. Such rocks have been seen in images sent by several of NASA's Mars rovers, and cosmic rays appear in images that Curiosity sends to Earth each week."

then, why don't they release similar images with similar lights, if it is quite common?? if it occurs every week, then they should have plenty of images (showing weird lights in the distance) in their archives; where are those?

pmon badow
pmon badow

Space exploration keeps the mind sharp, but what of the saying "there's no place like home"? Humans in our cursed state will just spread every physical and mental disease, con plan and suffering to our celestial neighbors if we start inviting ourselves to distant planets. Do you, US, Russia, China, Europe, want poverty and protester/police clashes on Mars in 150 years? Lets do the universe a favor and stay on our side of the atmosphere until we can love one another and use our own planet in a responsible manner.. Until then, greed, lust and dissatisfaction will be the motif of history.

Aleksander Dekeyser
Aleksander Dekeyser

hha bonfires, what do they burn? minerals? stones?
just some cosmic rays...

George Golden
George Golden

why not send rover to this light , would that not be science !

Neil Singh
Neil Singh

@Andrew Cullen  i think NASA knows where the other manmade objects that are on mars are located so they would know if it was there or not.

Da Pace
Da Pace

@David Alan McPartland This sounds plausible to me, but it seems awfully coherent for a geyser, at least as we know them here.  I would expect it to be more dispersed toward the top.  On the other hand, if it was a brief pulse it might have been captured before the plume had a chance to form.

Noah Decker
Noah Decker

@victor knopp  Not necessarily because Bigfoot (or Sasquatch) might not be an alien he might just be a human that is still evolving (then again if you believe in evolution)  

Todd Brown
Todd Brown

@Adrian P. Sorry the Curiosity Rover takes pictures in stereo and the image from the other camera did not show the bright light.  Whatever the cause it only was seen by one of the two cameras.  Just a bad bit of data.

Benjamin Carver
Benjamin Carver

@logoi dream  Check their databases then. They're all pretty much publicly available. Simply, nobody thought it worth wasting their time looking through old images just to release a press statement to convince the few people mad enough to believe in martian bonfires, that there is, of course, no conspiracy. The article says about one in every hundred; so have a look and see if you see random dots.

Todd Brown
Todd Brown

@George Golden The Curiosity Rover plods along at a very slow daily pace.  This isn't a quick little jaunt to that ridge line.

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