Mercury may be Planet X

It could mark the spot where interplanetary pirates buried their treasure, or maybe it’s a clue to the last remaining supply of Illudium Phosdex, the shaving cream atom. But this photo released by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) is awfully intriguing:

X-shaped craters on the surface of Mercury (click to embiggen)
Mysterious X-shaped craters at latitude 2.22°, longitude 216.0° E on Mercury, as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Okay, I know what you’re all thinking, and no: I don’t really want you to think it was made by aliens. Like the famous Face on Mars, this remarkable pattern appears to have entirely natural causes.

How do we know? Well, we zoom out, of course:

Long view of the region on Mercury with the X-shaped crater (click to really embiggen)
In this wider, mosaic view, Crater X can be seen slightly above and to the right of the centre. Click to view full size (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington, thanks to the USGS)

As this larger image shows, it appears to have been formed by streams of material emitted from two other nearby impact craters (the image is taken from the United States Geological Survey’s Map-a-Planet mosaic of photos from MESSENGER and the earlier Mariner 10 spacecraft).

Of course, what it may in fact be, is an example of pareidolia, the tendency for humans to see patterns in random shapes, like animals in clouds, or Jesus in a tortilla.

But hang on a moment. The story seems to have been spread via a news.com.au article, which brings up the whole ‘Face on Mars’ thing and says that “for some people, reason and logic will always take a back seat to unwavering hope”.

However, a quick click around UFO websites, the majority are just repeating NASA’s explanation, not jumping to the whole aliens-did-it conclusion.

So maybe this whole story is itself a bit of pareidolia, an attempt to find an expected conclusion in a random event. Woah, I think I just went a bit metatextual there…

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