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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Mars lava flow image inflames space lovers


An image taken by the UA’s HiRISE camera has gone viral.

The image, which resembles an elephant’s head, was taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment and has appeared on news sites like Discovery News,, and Yahoo! News. The “elephant’s head” is actually the edge of a vast lava flow in Elysium Planitia, a plain on the surface of Mars. In addition to shaping the elephant’s trunk and eye, it also shows what could be the animal’s forehead and ear.

The lava flow happened over years or decades, relatively quickly in geological time. The image is also upside down relative to most earthly mapping conventions, as the image is “north side down.” It shows an area about 5 kilometers across and 300 kilometers above the surface.

The natural formation is an example of “pareiodlia,” a situation where the human mind interprets patterns in such a way that it pulls out the image of something familiar, according to Alfred McEwen, a planetary sciences professor and the principal investigator for HiRISE. The same psychological mechanism was responsible for several popular images on Mars, including the famous “Face on Mars” that was photographed by Viking 1 in the Cydonia region of Mars and the “happy-faced” Galle Crater in Argyre Planitia.

In addition to showcasing the camera’s technical abilities, the image also helps give back to the public and spotlights scientific discoveries at the UA, said Ari Espinoza, outreach coordinator for HiRISE.

“The elephant picture is something almost everyone can relate to — it captures people’s imaginations,” Espinoza said. “And although we don’t get increased funding because of it, the public outreach component of what we do continues to be an important part of the mission.”

The HiRISE camera was built at the UA and is installed on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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