Spiders on Mars?!

Yes, it’s true –there are multi-legged, creepy-crawly looking things on Mars. The HiRISE camera has taken pictures of a slew of these things. But don’t worry, arachnophobs – they won’t bite or lay eggs under your skin at night. They’ll just spit.

 

The “spiders” are actually systems of channels near the south pole of Mars, as Dr. Candy Hansen explained during one of this morning’s LPSC sessions. These channels radiate outward from a central point (hence the spideriness), and they’re covered with a layer of translucent carbon dioxide ice. When sunlight starts to heat the bottom of that ice layer, the carbon dioxide sublimates into a gas, mixes with some surface dust, and gets spewed up from the channel through a crack in the ice. So you could say that the spiders spit from their legs.

 

In this series of pictures, HiRISE captured the same spider at different times of the year:

Spiders on Mars

The dark splotches are the spider “spittle”. You’ll notice that those dark trails change directions – that’s because when the gas and dust shoots up, the wind carries the plume, and the dust gets laid down onto the surface in whichever direction the wind was blowing. If the wind changes direction, the dust gets deposited in a different way.

 

Fascinating! This is great science and an amazing discovery, but I have a bone to pick with the presenters: Dr. Hansen said that the term “spiders” was too colloquial, and asked the scientific community to start calling them “araneiforms.” I like the term “spiders” – it’s easy to say, easy to spell, and easy to visualize. “Araneiforms” is none of those things. I always thought that most scientists used excessive jargon because they didn’t know how else to communicate (I gave them the benefit of the doubt). But here’s an example of scientists inventing jargon for the express purpose of sounding more scientific – and in the process making their discovery less accessible to a lay audience.

 

To prove my point: would you have been as interested in reading this post if I had called it “Araneiforms on Mars?!” (don’t answer if you’re a scientist).

 

 

Explore posts in the same categories: HiRISE, LPSC

9 Comments on “Spiders on Mars?!”

  1. Martin Watts Says:

    “Fascinating! This is great science and an amazing discovery, but I have a bone to pick with the presenters: Dr. Hansen said that the term “spiders” was too colloquial, and asked the scientific community to start calling them “araneiforms.” I like the term “spiders” – it’s easy to say, easy to spell, and easy to visualize. “Araneiforms” is none of those things. I always thought that most scientists used excessive jargon because they didn’t know how else to communicate (I gave them the benefit of the doubt). But here’s an example of scientists inventing jargon for the express purpose of sounding more scientific – and in the process making their discovery less accessible to a lay audience.”

    Perhaps they felt compelled to invent the term because David Bowier had already used Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.


  2. I’m not a scientist but am reasonably numerate and scientifically literate. I’m here because Emily Lakdawalla mentioned you on her Planetary Society blog so I would have opened this anyway, but I take your point. Over time, you have to watch out for cynicism – “Yeah, they say spiders but you know it’s just going to be some geological formation before you look”.

    I often wonder about these terms that proliferate on planetary maps: rupes and valles and patera and planitia and so forth. I guess it’s partly a matter of science being international so using English terms isn’t necessarily fair for scientists from non-anglophone countries.

    I’d say a consideration in this particular case is that a ‘spider’ on Mercury has received quite a bit of publicity, too, so the terminology naturally raises the question, are they the same type of thing (no, judging from your pictures and explanation)? But that issue arises even if you use obscure latinisms: does ‘Corona’ mean the same on Venus as Miranda?

  3. awalkabout Says:

    I like both words! Very interesting post–thanks for sharing!!

  4. mlabossi Says:

    Well, “Araneiforms” sounds a bit cooler than “spiders.” Oddly enough, I’m writing a Call of Cthulhu monograph for Chaosium and needed to come up with a name for one of the nasty critters. I now feel compelled to use “araneiform.” Thanks. :)

    http://aphilosopher.wordpress.com

  5. schildan Says:

    Everyone knows there aren’t any spiders on Mars. They were destroyed 500 years ago along with the ancient Romans who had colonized the planet.


  6. The terminology mess gets worse… The Mars spiders are almost certainly different in origin from the Mercury spider. As Emily Lakdawalla explained to me, the spider on Mercury is believed to be a volcanic feature. The Mercury spider is, however, very similar to some radial formations on Venus, which are called “novae” there. Of course, the word “novae” means something quite different in astronomy! So we’ve got too few words meaning too many things.

    Love all the David Bowie references. That was a good album.


  7. […] Martian Chronicles has two great articles about presentations given by HiRISE Team Members: Spiders on Mars, from our Deputy PI Candice Hansen (more about this topic here, under “Spring at the South […]


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