No, That's Not a Floating Spoon on Mars

9-3-15 Mars spoon
An image captured by NASA's Mars Curiosity rover on August 30, 2015 shows what looks like a floating spoon. In fact, it's most likely a ventifact, a rock shaped by wind. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

"There is no spoon," NASA wrote Wednesday on its Curiosity Mars Rover page on Facebook. The odd statement had nothing to do with a kitchenware crisis at the NASA office, but referred instead to an image snapped Sunday by the Mars probe. What resembles a floating spoon on the planet's surface "is likely a ventifact—a rock shaped by wind," NASA wrote.

Ventifacts form on Mars as they do on Earth, when rocks are worn away by windblown particles, almost always sand. On Earth, they can be found in places like the Little Cowhole Mountains and Silver Lake of the Mojave Desert in California. Rocks that are likely ventifacts have been found on Mars by the Viking and Pathfinder landers before Curiosity.

This is hardly the first time a rock has had an uncanny resemblance to a familiar object or species on the Red Planet, where people seem to enjoy picking out shapes as much as children like pointing out bunnies and dinosaurs in the clouds. In the past, a "rat," "woman," "jelly doughnut" and "crab" have been spotted in NASA photos. But these have all just been rocks, just like the spoon-shaped object in this recent photo.

The phenomenon—called pareidolia, it's "the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist"—is not limited to Mars rocks or clouds, but has us seeing shapes on the moon, leaves or even a grilled-cheese sandwich. One of the most famous Mars-related instances of pareidolia came in 1976 when NASA's Viking 1 sent back an image of the planet's surface that resembled a face. The "Face on Mars" became famous, but as subsequent images in increasingly higher resolutions would prove, "what the picture actually shows is the Martian equivalent of a butte or mesa—land forms common around the American West," NASA writes.

The "spoon" image was taken just after Curiosity celebrated its three-year anniversary on Mars, having arrived at the planet on the night of August 5, 2012. To celebrate the occasion, NASA launched Mars Trek , a Web-based visualization app based on Mars data collected over the years, and Experience Curiosity, a program that simulates what it would be like to be the Mars rover. The agency is using Mars Trek to help select a landing site for its Mars 2020 rover and to consider possible sites for human exploration further in the future.

"Our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way, making great progress on the journey to Mars," Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, is quoted as saying in an August 5 press release. "Together, humans and robots will pioneer Mars and the solar system."