Mars-Morse-Code-Wide
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Here's What Explains the 'Morse Code' on Mars

Jul 12, 2016

At last the evidence is in and no one can deny it any longer: There is intelligent life on Mars, it's sending us a message and that message is: "Zrrmgc tflmtip brzzzz."

OK, so maybe it's not so intelligent at all.

The "message," to the extent it exists, is a series of dots and dashes on the Martian surface photographed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, that looks for all the world as if it's written in Morse Code—even if that code would be gibberish when translated. All the same, it's striking and almost eerily deliberate looking, the kind of thing that really does appear to have been created by an intelligent hand—or flipper or pseudopod.

But it wasn't. The entire series of markings sits inside a circular impression that is likely an ancient impact crater, located below the North Martian Pole in an area known as the Hagal Dune Field. The walls of the crater scramble the flow of incoming wind, causing it to blow from two directions at once, creating a sculpting effect that forms the long markings in the soil. The short ones, resembling the dots, are created when the wind, blowing randomly, briefly pulls up short and stops.

The walls of the crater also prevent more sand from the outside from blowing in and filling the markings as soon as they're created. That means that while later winds will likely, slowly erase the current marks, more will probably be formed in the future.

This is not the first time we've gotten a false alarm from Mars. In 1976, the Viking 2 spacecraft captured an image of what appeared for all the world to be a face staring up from the surface of the planet. This gave rise to all manner of conspiracy theories and one truly execrable 2000 movie (don't pretend we don't see you there, Brian de Palma). But a later visit by the Mars Global Surveyor revealed that most of the ostensible face had blown away over the course of just 20 years.

If there is an intelligent mind involved in any of this, it doesn't belong to the Martians who create the formations, but the hopeful Earthlings, looking for signs of life elsewhere, who read meaning into them. We may well find some cosmic company one day, but today, alas, is not that day.

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.