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The Curious Case of the NASA
Crinoid Cover-Up

By Richard C. Hoagland
© 2004 The Enterprise Mission

A few days ago, on Sol 33, the Martian Rover "Opportunity" was commanded to roll forward to begin intensive investigation of a small section of the rocky outcrop, rimming this small crater that it's been exploring in a region of Mars, called "Meridiani Planum," since shortly after it landed there, January 25 th . The overall, few inches high outcrop, which spans approximately 180 degrees of the crater's interior, has been dubbed by the JPL Rover Team "Opportunity Ledge." The specific section that Opportunity was ordered to investigate last week is about in the middle of this outcrop (below), is approximately ten inches high, and was named by the Team "El Capitan."

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Preparatory to actually drilling into El Capitan and making detailed composition measurements with the array of sophisticated instruments on the Rover's "arm," Opportunity was commanded to take a series of close-up Microscopic Images of the untouched surface of the rock with the B&W CCD camera attached to the arm. One of those images (1M131201699EFF0500P29933M2M1.jpg) revealed an amazing sight (below):

A potential Martian fossil !

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A close-up enlargement of this fascinating object (above – bottom), reveals an apparently "snapped off" body geometry, at least five visible cylindrical "segments," and a hint of other fossil-like features buried in the surrounding rock itself – all classic hallmarks of a former living organism!

So, what did the JPL Rover science Team do with this potentially explosive scientific find …?

They promptly ground it into powder … right before our eyes (PanCAm color image, below)!

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As the second Microscopic Image (1M131212854EFF0500P2959M2M1.jpg), taken immediately after this grinding operation clearly shows (below), rather than move the grinder (technically called the "Rock Abrasion Tool" – RAT) a couple of inches to the left or right, the grinding of the rock took place directly over this astonishing fossil-looking object ….

Totally obliterating it.

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The raw "before" and "after" images of this wanton and inexplicable destruction can still be seen at the JPL Mars Exploration Rover Mission homepage.

After we discovered and posted an initial version of this remarkable series of events on "Enterprise" March 2, as might be expected (for a website which received almost 40 million hits in January alone) we began receiving e-mails from around the world -- from amateur and professionals alike -- all pointing out an almost unbelievable resemblance between "our" Martian fossil … and a well-known terrestrial counterpart.

Quoting from one correspondent, James Calhoun:

I have been a collector of marine fossils for 34 years, an amateur to be sure, but with years of field experience. When I saw the "Fossil" pic [on "Enterprise"], it was clear to me that it met a number of the basic criteria of fossilization. RCH was correct in that "scale does not matter," as the physical characteristics of the item are immediately apparent, and it is sad that the MER team did not present a professional paleontologist to comment. In that light, I have heard a varied number of explanations as to what type of fossil this could be, everything from a segmented worm (annelid) to a shrimp (crustacean). I would like you guys to consider that based on the symmetry of the object, that it could be in fact an early Crinoid, a filter feeding marine plant-like animal, a type with a calcium carbonate exoskeleton (this is Earth-based of course, the Martian exoskeleton [could] have been of a differing mineral composition). I have included a couple of pictures for symmetry and scale reference. Notice the triangular symmetry in the "branch areas," not to mention the segments, and also that the scale is inline with the "size of the blueberries." Your opinion would be most appreciated. Thanks for your time and I appreciate the work the team does."

Mr. James C. Calhoun (Jim)
Lancaster, NY

The images Jim included with his e-mail "knocked our socks off," as the saying goes.

Chosen from " A Beginners Guide To Identifying Cincinnatian Crinoids, "by Jack Kallmeyer, they clearly showed that the fossilized Martian "creature" we'd discovered on this series of Opportunity's Microscopic Images for Sol 33, shared an amazing number of specific characteristics with one "Ordovician Crinoid Retercrinus Alvealatus" (below).

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Other mages Mr. Calhoun sent us revealed even further similarities (below).

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Among the many responses to our posting of this extraordinary terrestrial fossil analog, was one from our long-time friend and colleague, Ron Nicks. Ron, as you may remember, is one of our Enterprise consulting geologists, who's written a number of thoughtful analyses on prior NASA missions and results.

For several days prior to this, Ron and I had been arguing back an forth via e-mail about the "Martian blueberries" that Jim Calhoun alluded to – those curiously spherical, highly uniform "somethings" that litter the Opportunity crater … literally, in the millions .

As seen in this PanCam color image (below), not only are these mysterious objects amazingly abundant and apparently contained within the rocks (until released through slow erosion), in properly calibrated images they are actually blue (contrary to the Rover Science Team Principal Investigator Stephen Squyres' increasingly curious denials at NASA press conferences, "They're NOT blue …" -- after it was he who originally termed them "blueberries" …).

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In fact, other than noting their great profusion and color, the major mystery of "what are they, really?" – the most obvious "anomalous features" of this entire Martian landscape -- had not been publicly addressed directly by the Rover Science Team … even after a full month at Meridiani Planum.

Ron had been arguing that the "berries" were also some kind of preserved life form, specifically representative of a separate Class of marine invertebrate animals (now extinct on Earth) called "blastoids." Fossilized blastoids (commonly called "fossil Rose Buds" or "Hickory Nuts" in the southeastern United States – where a lot of their fossils have been found) at first glance resemble a hard fruit common to many current trees. In fact, they are the partially petrified remains of a marine organism which (like the Crinoids– see below) stood above the sea floor on a long, segmented "stem" and gathered food from the surrounding currents with a waving set of tentacles (rarely preserved) called "pinnules" (below).

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One common blastoid form, because of its striking five-sided symmetry (below), is called "Pentremites."

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When Opportunity rolled up and took its first close in PanCam color images of a feature of "Opportunity Ledge" called "Stone Mountain" (below), the spacecraft was also commanded to acquire Microscopic Images at the same time (inset).

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Notice on the MI image (below), the series of extremely thin, parallel, sedimentary layers in this rocky outcrop (1M129516156EFF0312P2933M2M1.jpg), which also includes a couple of dangling "Martian blueberries," partially exposed.

Ron, in examining the "blueberries" on several of these and other close-ups, believed he'd spotted the tell tale, five-sided signature of Pentremites!

In a carefully composited color version of this same image, created by another Enterprise associate, Jill England, the details of some "berries" become clear. As you enlarge the "berries," distinct hints of five-sided, geometric surface features – eerily similar to fossilized terrestrial blastoids – finally do appear (below).

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Though eroded by unknown length of exposure to the Martian winds and sands – which over time have almost removed all surface markings and relief -- enough remains to make some interesting comparisons ….

Based on his paleontological experience, Ron had been arguing for days that these tantalizing clues pointed to a fossil explanation for the mysterious "blueberries" – as opposed to the strictly geological explanations being officially advanced by the Rover Science Team.

While intrigued, I was not convinced ….

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I found the fossil on the Sol 33 Rover MI image, and posted it on Enterprise. James Calhoun's highly provocative confirmatory e-mail and images arrived.  And, Ron wrote again:


Remember my [earlier] e-mail regarding crinoid stems? That is exactly what you are looking at in the "segments" that you describe [on "Coast to Coast AM," and in the latest "Enterprise" posting]. A crinoid stem has the appearance of a stack of lifesavers. In the same image, you can see what appears to be the blastoids or cystoids that top the stems. This deposit looks exactly like much limestone in the Cincinatti, Ohio area.


What are the odds of two independent experts – who have never met, let alone talked to one another on this subject! – separately identifying this specific crinoid's fossil on a random Martian image ... and then, the precise region on Earth where it's counterpart is found?!

OK, what's a "Crinoid?"

A crinoid [sometimes called a "sea lily," because of its superficial appearance to a spreading flower (below)] is, as James Calhoun described, "a filter feeding, marine, plant-like animal …." Crinoids first appeared in Earth's primeval seas over 500 million years ago, in the so-called "Cambrian Era," climbing to dominance over the next 150 million years, before receding once again in the terrestrial fossil record.

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UCLA's "astrobiology" website features several Crinoid reconstructions through geological time, some (below) carefully detailing their various components.

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The section of our fossilized Martian equivalent -- apparently captured in the Opportunity Microscopic Image from Sol 33 -- was the base of the "cup" and a small portion of one segmented "arm" (compare above and below). The other arms, which were used to gather food from the underwater ocean currents when the organism was alive, apparently had eroded away (or been blasted away by the creation of this Martian crater) … long before NASA's Opportunity Rover landed in the crater and took the specific image ….

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The mysteries presented by this astonishing discovery are far too complex to even begin to explore in any depth here. But a few questions seem in order ….

Given that this is real, that all of us now who have independently looked at this, and come to the same conclusion -- that this could in fact be a genuine Martian fossil at Maridiani Planum -- are not delusional … what could it mean?

A few days after the acquisition of this remarkable image, NASA held a sudden "water press conference" in Washington DC. There they announced, with much fanfare, that Opportunity had discovered – via its analytical equipment, measuring the chemistry of the outcrop -- that the site it was exploring once " was soaking wet in the past." While refraining from also claiming that "Opportunity Ledge's" layers of sediments had been laid down in actual liquid water, they came very close … and hinted that this confirmation could come "as early as a few days."

So, what do we have here?

Crinoids lived in ocean water – ranging from a few feet deep to several miles – anchoring their stems on the ocean floor and feeding on whatever nutrients drifted by. If you look at a combined map of where JPL landed its two Rovers, and the Odyssey GRS orbital determination of water abundance in the upper one meter of Martian soil, a glance will suffice to show the Rovers are indeed exploring none other than the shallows of our two proposed equatorial Martian tidal oceans (below)! Almost as if that had been planned ….

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It takes almost no imagination (so, even the current Rover Team might handle it …) to picture this site several million years ago (below) -- a quiet tidal pool, filled with gently waving creatures of the sea … until one day, something extraordinary happened … and this pool and all of Mars forever changed.

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The fact that our small Martian creature seems identical to the Crinoids which once dominated Earth's terrestrial oceans is astounding. That fact alone – if it is a fact – means that something is radically wrong with our current view of biological, if not planetary, evolution. Verifying that simple fact would seem now to be the highest priority for a space program about to undertake significant new challenges … including multi-generational planning for human flights to Mars.

It is so easy to invoke the idea of "parallel evolution" to explain this astonishing development. But is such a concept – especially on two totally different planets, with totally differing environments and histories -- even plausible science fiction … let alone scientific fact? Could not one just as easily invoke the intervention of an "outside agency" – including a Creator -- to explain the appearance, on these two separate worlds, of a species essentially identical in function and in form …?

And, if that can be done here, where does invocation of such an "outside intervention" end? With the appearance of the Face on Mars itself …?

The idea of landing a robot (essentially at random) on an alien planet … only to discover an ancient form of terrestrial life (maybe two – if the "blueberries" turn out to be Ron's blastoids!), so immediately recognizable that literally dozens of observers on this planet – amateurs and experts alike – have now independently identified it, raises profound philosophical and scientific questions … to which we now desperately need real scientific answers.

Unfortunately, if we expect our own Space Agency to publicly address – let alone answer – any of them … based on NASA's current actions vis a vis this fossil … we may be waiting a very long, long time ….

* * *

One final mystery:

In 2000, Geoffrey Landis – a NASA scientist attached to the NASA-Glenn Research Center, in Ohio – wrote his first Mars science fiction novel, " Mars Crossing ."

In 1997, Landis had been a Principal Investigator for one experiment on the highly successful first unmanned Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover mission to the outflow of an ancient water channel, Ares Vallis. As a result, his "Mars" in the new novel was highly praised, by both veteran science fiction writers and planetary scientists alike, as "totally authentic." One wrote:

"High-quality hard SF written with the authenticity of a NASA insider … Landis has given us a legend of our own near future …."

Geoffrey Landis is also now a member of the current JPL Rover Science Team, a member of the "atmospheric group." Which makes what he did in his novel four ago, very interesting ... to say the least.

Three quarters through his novel, Landis has one of his characters, Brandon Weber, get lost in the arid Martian desolation of endless dunes and dust. Tired and scared, the astronaut finally climbs a small butte to get his bearings … and makes a startling, serendipitous discovery ….

… There was a fracture line running down the middle of the butte; one half of it was two feet higher than the other. It made a natural seat. Without any sense of wonder, without even a sense of irony, he reached out and touched it. Embedded in the layered sandstone exposed by the crack, it held a perfectly preserved fossil. It looked like a cluster of shiny black hoses, clumped together at the bottom, branching out into a dozen tentacles at the top. In the same section of rock, he could see others, of every size from tiny ones to one three feet long. There were other fossils too, smaller ones in different shapes, a bewildering variety.

"I name you Mars Life Brandonii," he said.

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How did Landis -- a Pathfinder and MER Rover Mission NASA scientist -- somehow know ... four years ago?!

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