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Did the Curiosity rover find alien bones on Mars?

Could be a rock, could be a dragon.

By Cassidy Ward
Neil Degrasse Tyson: We'll Never Get to Mars

In the classic run of The Twilight Zone (check the SYFY schedule for airdates), Rod Serling delivered one of the most blistering twists in storytelling history with the episode “I Shot an Arrow into the Air.” The 15th episode of the first season begins with a crewed mission to an unexplored asteroid. Disaster strikes and half of the eight-person crew is killed when their craft crashes on the asteroid’s surface. Slowly, the rest of the crew perish, trying to survive on an alien world, until only one remains.

The 1968 film Planet of the Apes (also written by Serling) has a similar premise. Astronauts on an interstellar voyage waken from stasis and crash land on an alien planet in a star system 300 light years from Earth. There, they encounter populations of intelligent non-human apes and a subclass of primitive humans.

The characters of Battlestar Galactica (streaming now on Peacock!) represent the remnant of humanity leftover after all out war with a cybernetic race of warmongers known as the Cylons. The remaining humans inhabit 12 colony worlds, but they’re searching for a lost colony and their true home: Earth.

RELATED: Where is the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ cast now? Edward James Olmos, Katee Sackhoff & more

In each case, the protagonists of these stories (not to mention the audience) were in for a big surprise. The last surviving astronaut of that asteroid mission, lived just long enough to learn his spacecraft had malfunctioned and he had crashed right here at home, in the Nevada desert. Having escaped the clutches of the apes, Charlton Heston's Taylor rides the shoreline on a horse and discovers the partially buried remains of the Statue of Liberty. And the humans looking for Earth, they eventually gave up, settled someplace else, and named it Earth in honor of the world they never found. That false Earth is the world you’re living on right now.

Each of those stories have one thing in common: by the time the credits roll, we’ve learned that what the characters took for an alien world was, in fact, Earth all along.

It’s a classic trope, and one which has been employed exhaustively, but it’s never been tried in real life. Imagine our surprise, then, when the Curiosity rover recently stumbled upon what appear to be the remains of a decayed rib cage sticking out of a Martian rock.

Curiosity has been roaming around Gale Crater, a 96-mile impact crater, for more than a decade, taking pictures the whole time. Martian spacecraft track the date based on how many Martian days (Sols) have passed since they landed. Sol 1 is the day they land, Sol 30 is one Martian month later, and so on. On Sol 3798 (That was April 1 on the Earth calendar, but this is no April Fool’s prank), the rover snapped pictures of a rock with a series of long, slender spikes sticking out of its side.

Bone-like structures jut from a Martian rock

At first glance, it conjures visions of ribbed newts, a species of salamander with a defense mechanism that would make aliens proud. When threatened, ribbed newts change the angle of their ribs, swinging them forward while keeping the rest of the body rigid. As a result, the ribs pierce the newts’ skin, protruding from the sides of the body like adamantium claws in need of directions. On their way through the skin, they’re covered in a venomous mucus, turning them into deadly weapons. It isn’t the most comfortable defense mechanism but, boy, is it effective.

While Gale Crater is what’s left of a massive lake which existed roughly 3.5 billion years ago, it's unlikely that lake was filled with rib-stabbing newts. The images spurred conversation on Twitter, from scientists and enthusiasts alike. Nathalie Cabrol, an astrobiologist studying Mars’ ancient lake beds said she has never seen anything stranger in over 20 years studying Martian geology. She went on to explain that the formation, strange as it is, is likely the result of ripples in the rock and a whole lot of erosion. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Mars, it’s that things aren’t always what they seem.

This certainly isn’t the first time humans have found an unusual rock formation on Mars and thought it might be something weird. The red planet is famous for having a gigantic “face” on its surface and it has only been a few months since astronomers found what looks like the face of a bear in severe need of therapy, staring up from the surface of Mars. Each one is a surprise, but that they exist at all, shouldn’t be surprising.

RELATED: Astronomers find the face of a cracked-out bear on the surface of Mars

If you take one desert planet, muss its hair with liquid water and volcanic activity, then turn down the lights, lock the doors, and leave it to the whims of wind-blown sand for a few billion years, you’ll end up with just about every geological formation you can imagine, and a few you can’t. This isn’t even the first time we’ve found something bone-like on Mars. Back in 2014, Curiosity’s MastCam imaged what looked like a loose collection of scattered bones, partially buried in Martian soil. One rock in particular sticks out among the rest, thanks to its striking resemblance to a femur.

If found on Earth, these rocks might trick a paleontologist for a minute, but they’d figure it out pretty quickly. On Mars, though, it’s pretty clear that geology is at work. Is it possible that life arose on Mars in the past? Yes! And we’re working hard to find out. Is it possible that Martian life not only existed but was complex enough to adapt large bodies and leave fossilized bones behind? Hell, we don’t know. No one does. But probably not. If they did, there should be a lot of them and today’s kids will grow up to become alien paleontologists, the coolest job that has ever existed. It’s more likely that they’ll grow up to become alien geologists and finally explain how weird rock formations like these are created.

You know how the old saying goes: never attribute to dope alien creatures that which is adequately explained by physics.

Watch Battlestar Galactica streaming on Peacock, and learn that the real Earth was the friends we made along the way.