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Most of the branching of the spidery ridges at the Martian south pole follows the Fibonacci pattern, a
pattern that has no reference in familiar geological events. Credit: NASA/MOC

Jul 28
, 2006
The Baffling Martian Spiders (3)

The remarkable Martian formations called “spiders” occur only at the planet’s south polar region. But some observers distinguish between those spiders which appear as permanent features of the surface, and those which seem to emerge and disappear seasonally.

A groundbreaking study by C.M. Orme and P.K. Ness, published in the February 8, 2002 issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, examines the spiders in detail. (The authors titled their study "Spider Ravine Models and Plant Like Features on Mars—Possible Geophysical and Biogeophysical Modes of Origins.")

A subsequent study by Orme and Ness, developed in consultation with renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark (available at New Frontiers), concentrated on the enigma of the changing spiders, suggesting that the comings and goings of active variants constitute one of the most profound mysteries ever presented to planetary scientists.

Though the authors do not assert a final position on the subject, their lines of reasoning imply that a biological origin may be the only explanation not excluded by the visual evidence. Orme and Ness note that, in contrast to the permanent spiders, which include substantial ravine networks, changing spiders all involve material raised above the surrounding surface. The branching of these formations presents well-defined ridges, as seen in the picture above. But mysteriously, the active spiders grow and retreat seasonally—even appear to dissolve completely into the surrounding terrain— the very attributes one might expect of vegetation.

But the biological interpretation runs into a seemingly insurmountable problem. It is not reasonable to suggest that active and inactive spiders are created by unrelated forces. Inactive spiders, a permanent part of the visible landscape, are clearly-cut ravines. There is simply no basis for suggesting a biological character of these permanent ravine networks. Surely, a credible explanation of the active spiders cannot ignore the inactive spiders.

The distinctive branching pattern is fundamental to the authors’ argument: “The branching (bifurcating) structure of roots, shoots, veins on leaves of plants, etc., have similarity in form to branched lightning strokes, tributaries of rivers, physiological networks of blood vessels, nerves and ducts in lungs, heart, liver, kidney, brain etc. Such seemingly complex network structure is associated with exquisitely ordered beautiful patterns exhibited in flowers and arrangement of leaves in the plant kingdom.” The reasoning here tends to link branching structure most “exquisitely” with living systems, though lightning strokes and tributaries of rivers also reveal branching patterns.

But Orme and Ness properly note that the mathematical pattern of “Fibonacci” branching is not typical of river networks, except by chance. River networks are constrained by random topography in ways that preclude the mathematical pattern.

What, then, of lightning? The authors contend that “Fibonacci patterns are never found in non-biological phenomena.” But this statement is clearly not correct. In Part 1 of this series we noted the “arachnoids” on Venus, identical in both name and morphology to the Martian spiders. In Part 2 of this series we presented a Lichtenberg figure created by an electric arc on a negatively charged surface. It shows undeniable Fibonacci branching. We also noted the Lichtenberg pattern of a lightning strike on a golf course, with prolific branching remarkably similar to that of the Martian spiders.

Though most treatments of the spiders emphasize temperature variations affecting surface ice (water and/or CO2), evidence presented by Orme and Ness systematically excludes the possibility that spiders are made of CO2 or water ice.
“Whatever the spiders are made of, it stands to reason that the same materials must be found elsewhere on the South Pole. For example, if the spiders are made of CO2 or water ice, then other known ice nearby should also be in similar unusual formations. …The spiders tend to form in early spring and fade away in autumn … The spiders are forming as the CO2 is usually already gone and the ground becomes frost free, and the spiders are shrinking when ice and frost are returning to the ground. If they are made of ice, then it needs to be explained why they are affected by temperature in the opposite way known to ice.”

But the authors appear to have missed a key to the solution, one in which we have sufficient confidence to assert a prediction: Both the active and inactive spiders are part of the permanent Martian topography at the south pole. What distinguishes the one class from the other is the relative depth of ice covers in the Martian winter. Following this reasoning, the growth of the active spiders in the spring would be nothing more than the effect of sublimation and Martian winds progressively removing snow and ice layers to expose the Lichtenberg ridges. The ridges themselves, we suggest, are not changing in any appreciable way. They are constituted of surface material glassified by high-energy electrical arcs striking the south polar region. In this interpretation, as snow or ice returns in the fall, the shallow spidery ridges appear to dissolve back into the terrain.

Could the explanation really be this simple? There is every reason to explore the electrical interpretation, and NASA’s disregard of electric possibilities remains a continuing disservice to the public, though it is the public that provides the funding on which all of NASA’s activities depend.


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