Space Orbiter Spots 'Hairy Blue Spider' on Mars

David Bowie sang about his sci-fi persona Ziggy Stardust performing with the Spiders from Mars, and now it turns out there's a "spider" on Mars after all.

An image captured by a European Space Agency (ESA) orbiter recently showed what appears to be a very hairy, blue spider extending its "legs" across the Martian landscape.

But in reality, the so-called spider is a sprawling pattern left behind on a ridge by a frenzy of dust devils, when hundreds or even thousands of whirling tornadoes formed in the area, ESA representatives said yesterday (March 14) in a statement

Related: Seeing Things on Mars: A History of Martian Illusions

A feature on Mars that looks like a very hairy spider was likely caused by the convergence of hundreds or even thousands of tornadoes.  (Image credit: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

The ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter captured the image on Feb. 8 in Mars' Terra Sabaea region, using the spacecraft's Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS). Blue tracks represent parts of the ridge that were scraped and scoured by the tornadoes' winds. Though the actual color of the material exposed by the tornadoes is dark red, it shows up as blue in the color-composite image; this technique enhances the contrast of surface features, according to the statement. 

It is unknown why so many dust devils (or dust tornadoes) converged along the ridge, though the region's mountains may impact the flow of air masses and contribute to tornado formation, ESA representatives said.

The orbiter captured a glimpse of NASA's InSight lander, as a "mole" probe hammered itself into the Martian surface. (Image credit: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

The ExoMars orbiter, which launched in 2016, also captured a photo of NASA's InSight lander on March 2, as it pounded its burrowing "mole" instrument into the ground to sample Mars' interior. In the image, InSight appears as a small, white speck inside a darker circle of rock scorched by the lander's rockets during touchdown. Nearby are InSight's heat shield and parachute, which were ejected during its descent.

Other photos the ESA released yesterday feature stunningly well-preserved impact craters; layered deposits near Mars' south polar ice cap; and 3D views of craters, dunes and outcrops. 

"All of the images we're sharing today represent some of the best from the last few months," Nicolas Thomas, CaSSIS principal investigator from the University of Bern in Switzerland, said in the statement. 

The "hairy spider" isn't the first eye-fooling photo of a Martian feature. In 1976, NASA's Viking 1 spacecraft snapped an image of a mountain on Mars that bore an uncanny resemblance to a human face, and the Curiosity rover has captured images that seemingly showed a rat, a lizard and even a floating spoon — unsurprisingly, they all turned out to be oddly shaped rocks.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Mindy Weisberger
Mindy Weisberger is a senior writer for Live Science covering general science topics, especially those relating to brains, bodies, and behaviors in humans and other animals — living and extinct. Mindy studied filmmaking at Columbia University; her videos about dinosaurs, biodiversity, human origins, evolution, and astrophysics appear in the American Museum of Natural History, on YouTube, and in museums and science centers worldwide. Follow Mindy on Twitter.