Curiosity, the Mars rover, had been transmitting images and data steadily now for several months. The analysts at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena had started to dive in to the treasure trove, excited by all the new things they were learning from it.
To some (not the scientists), it had been somewhat disappointing that at first when the rover had started to transmit imagery from its landing zone in the Gale Crater, Mission Control had received the very same bleak images of a red desert world the humankind had become familiar with ever since the Viking missions.
Where the Viking landers had been stationary, the mars rovers – Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity – that had come before had been able to move around. The most optimistic commentators had even argued that if you shot a probe to Earth and landed it smack in the middle of Sahara or the Gobi desert, you’d see almost exactly what the Vikings had seen. To shoot a roving probe to the Red Planet might finally help us to have a good look around. Maybe there was something more where the desert ended?
Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity had uncovered just more of the red. Curiosity, however, was a great deal more powerful than its predecessors. So far, though, no little green men, no Marsoom Warrior Princesses, not even any sight of microbial life. But the mission had only just started.
A few months into the mission, it was clear that there were no quick winnings in sight. Curiosity had been roving around but most of the imagery and data just kept on adding to the bleak image of the red desert.
Of course, there were some at least anecdotally interesting pieces the rover had found, especially for what Jeff called “the UFO loons.” Such as the Pyramid. Jeff’s team was pretty sure it was just a natural rock formation. They knew nature could erode rocks into the most extraordinary shapes, such as the hexagonal rocks at the Giant’s Footsteps in Ireland. So one pyramid-shaped rock wasn’t that big of a deal.
But of course as the image had been published – something some NASA comms managers deeply regretted afterwards – the UFO loons had gone all kinds of crazy in rejoicing that the ancient aliens the Egyptians and the Aztecs had worshipped had made it to Mars first. (Or maybe it was the lizard people or the little gray men.) No amount of common sense, such as the fact that the damn thing was only about a foot tall, would of course throw the dedicated crazies off their crusade.
But internally too, there was some debate as to the nature of the Pyramid. After all, it was a little too perfectly shaped to be accidental, even if accident and natural erosion could essentially explain it adequately. To put a stop to the speculations for once and for all, Mission Control decided finally to send the rover back to it to investigate.
What better way is there to resolve a mystery than to throw some good science at it?