Mars Hoaxes! 6 Stubborn Red Planet Conspiracy Theories

Mars Hubble Photo
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope snapped this shot of Mars on Aug. 26, 2003, when the Red Planet was 34.7 million miles from Earth. The picture was taken just 11 hours before Mars made its closest approach to us in 60,000 years. (Image credit: NASA/ESA)

Every year in August, the same Mars message circulates across the Internet: The Red Planet will appear "as big as the full moon" in the sky, as seen with the naked eye. The problem is, it's not true: Skywatchers won't be able to see a "double moon" in the late August sky.

The so-called Mars Hoax (which started in 2003 after a real-life close approach of Mars to the Earth) is just one of a series of false claims concerning the Red Planet.

Here are some misconceptions about Mars that just won't die. [Seeing Things On Mars: A History of Martian Illusions]

1. Mars as big as the full moon

The culprit for this hoax was an unsigned email advising people how to observe Mars during the planet's historically close approach to Earth in August 2003, said skywatching columnist Joe Rao. Readers apparently missed the line saying that it would take a 75-power magnification in a telescope to make Mars appear as big as the full moon.

The original "Face on Mars" image taken by NASA's Viking 1 orbiter, in grey scale, on July 25, 1976. Image shows a remnant massif located in the Cydonia region. (Image credit: NASA)

2. "Face" on Mars

This hoax arose from a picture taken in 1976 by NASA's Viking 1 orbital spacecraft of a rocky outcrop in the Cydonia region of Mars. The appearance of what looks like a face (created by light and shadows) sparked discussions that it could have been some remnant of an ancient civilization. The "face on Mars" idea persisted even past 1998, when NASA and the European Space Agency began taking more pictures with higher-resolution cameras to show that the facelike shape on the planet's surface was a coincidence.

3. Woman on Mars

In 2007, NASA's Spirit rover captured a photo of what appeared to be a human figure (perhaps a woman) far in the distance. The mysterious photo lit up several Internet forums as users had hopes of confirming life on another planet. But astronomers quickly pointed out that the human shape is actually just a rock that is only a few inches high, but positioned very close to the camera. Plus, humans can't breathe on Mars. [Why Do We Believe in Mars Hoaxes?]

4. Iguana on Mars

In 2013, conspiracy sites reported a "creature" spotted in a photo captured by the Curiosity rover: an iguana. But as The Huffington Post pointed out at the time, the iguana, rat and other animals spotted in photos from the Red Planet have yet to be shown to be anything but oddly shaped rocks.

Once seen, it cannot be unseen. The "Mars rat" captured by Curiosity’s lens. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

5. Rat on Mars?

UFO buffs zeroed in on a portion of a panoramic photo taken by NASA's Curiosity rover in September 2012. These viewers spotted an object that looked like a rat lying between two rocks. While it's a creative idea, the "Mars rat" is unlikely, scientists have said. The Red Planet has extremely cold temperatures, is baked in radiation and lacks a thick, protective atmosphere like Earth's, making it an extremely hostile environment for life.

6. Life-bearing organics on Mars

Based on a vague quote from the Curiosity rover's chief scientist, rumors swirled in late 2012 that Curiosity found complex organic compounds (organics contain carbon, which can be a building block of life). But it turned out that the rover's organic findings were not complex organic compounds, and it was unclear to scientists if the carbon in them had originated on Earth and were brought to the Red Planet, or if they were truly Martian. Interestingly enough, proof of more-complex forms of organics were in fact found, in 2014.

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Elizabeth Howell
Live Science Contributor
Elizabeth Howell is a regular contributor to Live Science and, along with several other science publications. She is one of a handful of Canadian reporters who specializes in space reporting. Elizabeth has a Bachelor of Journalism, Science Concentration at Carleton University (Canada) and an M.Sc. Space Studies (distance) at the University of North Dakota. Elizabeth became a full-time freelancer after earning her M.Sc. in 2012. She reported on three space shuttle launches in person and once spent two weeks in an isolated Utah facility pretending to be a Martian.