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White Light on Mars photo: Alien life, UFO, plain old sunlight, or what?

A NASA photo depicting a white light on Mars' surface has taken hold of the public's imagination. Taken on April 2 by the Mars Curiosity Rover, the white image appears to flash vertically in the upper left quadrant of the photo. And that flash has prompted all sorts of Internet speculation as to what might be its source. Is it -- finally -- a sign of extraterrestrial life? A UFO? A surface reflection? A planetary emission? Or could it be a glitch in the photographic process used by Curiosity to obtain its images?

The Wire reported (via Yahoo News) April 8 that the image transmitted from Mars by the Curiosity Rover has caused quite a stir among UFO hunters and spotters on the Internet. Among them, Scott C. Waring at UFO Sightings Daily posits that: "This could indicate there there is intelligent life below the ground and uses light as we do. This is not a glare from the sun, nor is it an artifact of the photo process."

Although Waring states definitively that the white light is not an effect of sunlight or some anomaly caused by the photographic equipment, which is exactly what NASA believes has caused the light. NASA's Justin Maki at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, noting that bright spots appear in two separate images on two different days (April 2 and April 3), wrote The Wire, explaining: "We think it's either a vent-hole light leak or a glinty rock." Vent-hole problems with images, where light breaches the housing of the cameras on the rover, have occurred before with Curiosity and other exploratory vehicles. Reflected sunlight is simply a matter of geometry and timing.

But Waring also writes: "Sure NASA could go and investigate it, but hey, they are not on Mars to discovery life, but there to stall its discovery."

And now we enter conspiracy theory territory...

But Waring is not alone in tossing out the idea that the white light on Mars might be caused by aliens or intelligent life. YouTube user Thelifebeyondearth, who uploaded a video of the photo with musical soundtrack, described the light on Mars thus: "this close up seems to reveal a hole or shadow beneath the light...could it be an underground base."

Since decades of photographic and spectroscopic and geothermal imaging has produced no signs of life on the surface of Mars, many now believe that if life is to be found on the fourth planet from the Sun, it will be be discovered beneath the surface. However, many scientists now believe that if life exists on the arid Red Planet, it will be of the microbial kind.

The scientific approach to answering the question about what might be the source of the light on Mars might not be as exciting or adventurous as some, but it is far better than wild and unsubstantiated speculation. Ben Biggs, editor of All About Space magazine (via the Daily Mail), says jumping to conclusions when seeing images like this would undermine the agency's credibility.

"While the 'light' is as yet unexplained, it's quite a leap to assume that it has an intelligent source," he told the Daily Mail. "The public can afford to speculate wildly but Nasa is an organisation internationally renowned for credible science. It needs to exhaust every other likely explanation before it can begin to explore less realistic phenomena."

So is the newly discovered white light on Mars a product of life on Mars? Or is it just an effect of sunlight? Could it be something else, such as a thermal eruption of some sort? It certainly does not appear to be flying, so perhaps a UFO might be out of the question. Perhaps.

The truth is: At present, whatever caused the light on Mars in unknown. All the speculation, by UFO spotters and average citizens and NASA scientists alike, amounts to nothing more than hopeful, whimsical, and/or educated guesswork based on insufficient data.

And so the search for life on Mars continues...

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