Scenario: The ESA wants to get more respect and more funding. Last time they were thinking about faking the Mars landing, but after some discussion they reached the consensus that they cannot fake Mars landing.

Instead, they decide to fake Martians but for doing it for real, we need more money and to join forces with NASA, even if we kinda hate NASA.

The question: What is the cheapest way to fake intelligent life on Mars?

I think "finding" some underground life is beyond plausibility. But what if some alien "crashed" on Mars and started living a Martian life on Mars? That would definitely boost NASA's and the ESA's budgets to the roof!

But ... can we fake it? And if yes, can we fake it until a manned mission to Mars is launched? And can we do it cheaply?

Please note: People cooperating on this plan is again one big hand-wave. Please try focusing on the monetary aspect. But again, I may give some additional points for an elaborate guess on how much money and people I need to pull this off.

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    $\begingroup$ It would be very suspicious. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ By "but for doing it for real, we need [...] to join forces with NASA" do you imply that the US is complicit in your deception? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ @2012rcampion nah, I was trying to say that for actually landing a man on Mars the ESA needs to join forces with NASA. NASA would never ever fake it. We know that these Ammies have weird morale ;) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean NASA would never fake it? We did in 1969, we can fake it again =P $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ Absolutely! youtube.com/watch?v=vITJdaJ4xxM $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 18:02

7 Answers 7


Yes, you can fake a land with existing rovers but you won't want to. The following sequence of events will establish the hoax but you'll never be able to keep the secret for long and when the hoax is revealed, ESA and NASA reputation will be tarnished forever.

  1. Have Curiosity Rover's sensors register a significant overpressure event followed by several more smaller events over the next couple of hours.
  2. Register massively increased radiation readings from the RAD and DAN sensors. Between the overpressure events and increased radiation it is easy to show that a large explosion took place that involves some kind of nuclear power source.
  3. Release these findings to the world and watch them go nuts.
  4. The world is going to demand further information about this. Immediately. Every telescope, radio telescope, amateur telescope will be pointed towards the Red Planet. Any orbiter around the planet will be ordered to look in the vicinity of the Curiosity Rover to see what's happened. The resolution of such probes is sufficient to identify sub-meter objects on Mars surface. The probes that can see Curiosity are owned by NASA or ESA.
  5. Curiosity will be ordered to start looking for the source of the radiation so a long string of increased radiation reading will need to be faked in order to show progress towards the crash site.
  6. To avoid having to actually show the alien wreckage, have the radiation readings approach Curiosity's maximum radiation threshold so that to continue will endanger Curiosity's survival. If ordered to continue anyway, secretly shutdown Curiosity before any photographs/videos of the crash can be sent back.


It will be incredibly easy to fake an alien crash on Mars. It will be impossible to keep the hoax a secret for more than a few years before every space agency on the planet sends missions to figure out what happened. Life on Mars is THE discovery in world history. Astronomers have been talking about life on Mars since at least 1858 with the "discovery" of the Martian Canals.

India has a Mars orbiter as of September 2014 (and they got it there cheaply). With the advent of this hoax, funding for Mars missions have now become effectively unlimited as the demand for information about the event now surpasses the Space Race of the 1960s. In the short term, ESA has gotten what it wanted, massively increased funding. In the long term, ESA and NASA are finished. All research they have ever done will be called into question. Many many people will lose their jobs and be permanently blacklisted from the science community.

In short, don't do it. The short term gains aren't worth the long-term losses.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree this is the simplest plan, have a probe send back false, tantalizing data. The cost is only the reprogramming. Even those eavesdropping on the transmission will be fooled. $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ If the data is encrypted on the way back (not sure why but it might) then you don't have to prove it to anyone. ESA/NASA is the authoritative source for data from Curiosity. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 23:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I believe signals from space probes normally aren't encrypted. It would add code, power, and data size, all things you do not want in a space probe whose purpose is to share data. It would arouse people's suspicions if Curiosity suddenly started encrypting its data. Besides, if you're going to encrypt the data transmission why bother sending it in the first place? Just make it up! "Uhh, yeah, this is the new data toootally from Curiosity that I didn't just type into my laptop". $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 1:19
  • $\begingroup$ Curiosity is too slow to really go anywhere. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 11:27

I'll be an optimist here, and say that maybe - just maybe - it can be done.

Here's my plan:

  1. Send a rover to Mars - or, rather, wait until a rover gets sent to Mars. The best choice now is to wait for the Mars 2020 rover to launch.
  2. When the rover lands, begin its mission planning. It will hopefully bring back some positive results regarding Martian habitability.
  3. A few months in, begin a planned "disaster". The rover will suddenly stop broadcasting to Earth, and all attempts at communication will be in vain. Build up press excitement about the cause of the failure.
  4. Let the rover bury a small box containing a radio transmitter, that periodically sends a message to Earth. It could use mathematics.
  5. Drive the rover away from the burial spot, and then "wake it up".
  6. Create a detailed press release saying that some interference caused a transmission error in the rover's instruments - somehow, another signal was being sent on the same frequency, and there was a mistake. Announce that the communications have been modified, and the rover is searching for the source of the other signal.
  7. Follow the trail to the spot, but go a different way. There's one problem here, which is that there will be tracks from the rover as it left from the burial. Disguise those somehow, or wipe them off.
  8. Dig up the box - clearly alien in nature - which continuously transmits a radio signal. Amplify the signal, and send it back to Earth. Make sure that everyone can receive the signal. Have someone - not necessarily affiliated with NASA/ESA decipher it.
  9. Have the box "accidentally" self destruct after the rover leaves it behind, for fear of contamination of its instruments. There is no physical evidence.

Yes, you will need people to complete the mission. You'll need a small team to make the box, although that number can be slimmed down. Hide it in the rover as a classified attachment to an instrument that is never talked about. You'll also need another team to pre-program the rover to do the maneuvers on its own.

That should be it, though. It's cheap and requires very few people to pull it off.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think this would work. Nobody has noticed that there is a mysterious radio signal being transmitted from Mars until now? $\endgroup$
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 12:57
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Also, the difference in mass of the rover with hidden box might be noticed somehow from mission data $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Daniel It could have been recently activated around the time of the rover's arrival. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ Just by coincidence? That's pretty suspicious $\endgroup$
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 22:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Daniel Not necessarily a coincidence. Perhaps the rover disturbed it by coming within a certain distance of it. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 22:10

Building on Green's answer, you would not want to fake Martians or aliens on Mars, because there would be far too many people in on the deception, and someone will talk (remember: two can keep a secret when one of them is dead....), and even in the unlikely event that not one of the thousands of people in the ESA or NASA spills, the Russians, Chinese, Indians and even interested private citizens with Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk sized bankrolls will be on the way to investigate (Bezos and Musk, of course, own their own rocket companies which can do the job).

As well, you should remember that there needs to be an element of plausibility. The "Face on Mars" has spawned a cottage industry and Richard Hoagland is constantly pushing ever more elaborate explanations on his website; but he is justly viewed as a crank. No one is going to spend more than a pittance on that (and then mostly to debunk it).

What is really needed is the right combination of indeterminate results that constantly tweak people's interest, and the "right" people who are both interested and motivated to do something about it.

We actually have more than enough "indeterminate" findings dating back to the Viking landers in 1976. There are indications of water, changes to the atmosphere like anomalous whiffs of methane, possible microfossils embedded in Martian meteorites and even the somewhat inconclusive results of the Viking lander's on board lab. Taken individually or even together there is no conclusive proof of life, but neither do they make a convincing argument against life on Mars. The ambiguity suggests that something rather strange is going on there, and that our current science is not able to figure it out (not enough data points).

So the missing ingredient is someone to pull it all together and motivate enough people, politicians and bureaucrats into supporting a full bore Martian expedition capable of doing a detailed study of Mars and developing enough data points to actually answer the question. This individual needs to be well informed enough to talk sensibly about the issue, have plenty of connections in the scientific and political community and have "rock star" charisma to convince even the most sceptical person (since the vast majority of people are more easily swayed by emotion rather than rational thinking. Consider that the next time there is an election in your city, State/Province or nation).

This needs to be a very exceptional person indeed, since calls for a Martian Expedition have been going out since the 1950's (Wernher von Braun wrote a detailed proposal known as Das Marsprojekt in @ 1957), and you can count people as varied as Arthur C Clarke, Carl Sagan, Robert Zubrin and Elon Musk (among others) as all having been proponents of Martian exploration. Since the Return on Investment (RoI) for space exploration and industrialization has been relatively low (virtually the only things in space that pay for themselves are communications and observation satellites), few governments or corporations are inclined to spend more than a pittance on space (to the point that the Americans knowingly abandoned their independent ability to send astronauts into orbit and the Russians allowed a factory with two Buran orbiters to be abandoned while the hanger holding the third suffered a roof collapse, crushing the only flying version of the orbiter http://www.timetobreak.com/1242311/30-unseen-photographs-of-an-abandoned-russian-space-program/).

Perhaps if an "A" list movie star or a real Rock Star were to begin speaking positively about Martian exploration, that would be enough to build a movement to go to Mars, since nothing else has worked to date.


Denounce your own hoax.

People on the Internet are all the time "discovering" things in the probe images and videos. All you need to do is leave something clearly anomalous - say a rough figurine of a hand with four fingers, or anything equally unlikely - where the probe will photograph it.

Then dub the thing something funny - "the Shrub" - and proceed ignoring it.

After a little while, maybe with a gentle prodding, but more likely all by themselves, people will start talking about the Martian Hand.

Point out that it can't possibly be an artifact, because:

  • there are no Martians.
  • pareidoly is a sufficient explanation for the object's resemblance to a hand.
  • it doesn't even resemble a hand all that much.
  • and, obviously, there are no Martians and never were.
  • it is unlikely, to say the least, for the probe to have landed near such an artifact, unless Mars is covered with them, which we know it isn't.
  • the "possibly inhabited" surface of Mars is down several feet of dust in that area. Even if someone had left an artifact back in the day, it would be buried deep, not below a few millimeters of sand, ready to be churned out by the probe's wheels.
  • and -- someone who? There are no Martians!

After several weeks of trolling, grudgingly agree to go back to the Shrub to perform some analyses, even if it's clearly any old rock.

But the artifact is no longer there.

No, wait, it is. The old pictures were mislabeled. Sorry for all the excitement, guys. Anyway it's just any old rock. We're drilling now.

Silence descends.

Several technicians and analysts that aren't part of the very small clique that prepared the hoax go ballistic and are silenced - the readings make no sense. You patiently explain to them that before going public with anything, given the sensitivity of the situation, many more tests need to be performed. After all, there are no Martians, so the artifact cannot be made of fired clay and cannot contain the organics the analyses show. There must be some simple explanation and we don't want to go the conspiracy route.

After a couple of days outside people start asking, and pestering personnel to know what's going on. Delay. The results will leak anyway.

Several analyses later you convene an internal, secret meeting and explain that the analyses say that the object is artificial. But since there are no Martians and all the previous objections still stand, it must be investigated whether the object could not have been brought from Earth - namely, in the probe. So, a panel of three experts (all members of the conspiracy) is nominated to determine the exact path and provenance of every single bit of the probe.

The whole personnel is requested to keep the whole thing as secret as possible, thus ensuring that everything is leaked to the major media channels within one hour. The world predictably goes mad. Your obdurate refusal to admit the object is Martian makes you an Internet meme. A cartoon with the ESA's spokespersons mashed in a lion's mouth while confidently declaring "See? There are no lions! This is just pareidoly and wishful thinking!" makes the cover of Time.

Your panel comes out with possible ways someone might have smuggled the artifact all the way to Mars, each more farfetched than the last (one of them is true, though), and gets lampooned and ridiculed. The panel leader gets interviewed and describes the wildly improbable way someone might have equipped the probe with the Martian Hand and devised a way of deploying it on command.

Q. "And could all this have been done without anyone noticing?"

A. "Well, nobody would expect anyone to try such a stunt, so-"

Q. "You mean that I could enter ESA's labs and add a little something to your next probe, just like that?"

A. "No, no, of course not! But, well - perhaps - if you had collaborators inside -"

Q. "Professor, I took the liberty of asking your colleagues how this could be accomplished. Apparently you'd need the collaboration of nearly everyone. The probe has been weighted, shaken, tested, disassembled and reassembled several times, as you very well know. Its weight is known and the artifact doesn't appear on the manifest."

A. "The weight has some tolerances that -"

Q. "That would have sent the mission anywhere but Mars. That weight must be accounted for in terms of fuel, again as you very well know."

A. "When the impossible has been ruled out, what remains -"

Q. "Ah, but who says that the Martian Hand is impossible? Is it not true, Professor, that you're a lifelong member of several 'skeptic' associations who staunchly deny the existence of extraterrestrial life?"

A. "We claim nothing of the sort! It's simply that there's no proof that-"

Q. "And now the proof might be here, and you won't accept it because you never had proof before? How do we prime this pump, Professor? Somewhere we'll have to start accepting proofs, won't we?"

As a nice touch, two "investigators" are denounced as declaring to be willing to fake smuggling the Martian Hand and accusing themselves, before allowing this farce to go further. After that, any clue suggesting that the Martian Hand might actually have been smuggled is automatically suspect.

The last line of defense of the Hand Skeptics is "If that's a hand, well then where is everything else? Where is the arm, but more - where are the ruins, the streets, the whatever else a civilization must have left behind? You really want us to believe that there's only a hand left, and that by chance we happened right smack on top of it? Come on!"

At that point, a grassroot movement emerges claiming for a manned mission to Mars armed with shovels.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Very smart social engineering! $\endgroup$
    – user3106
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 8:59
  • $\begingroup$ This is the perfect answer. Because when the "Not actually martians" truth comes out, it actually bolsters the agency's reputation, instead of destroying it. $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 17:05

Short answer: you can't.

Long answer:

enter image description here Curiosity Spotted on Parachute by Orbiter, www.nasa.gov

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is a US-owned and operated satellite currently orbiting Mars. It carries a 50-centimeter telescope called HiRISE. MRO's 250-by-316-kilometer sun-synchronous polar orbit gives HiRISE a resolution of about 0.3 meters across nearly the entire surface of Mars.

Just to demonstrate HiRISE's resolving power, the above image (taken by HiRISE) shows the Curiosity rover descending on its parachute. HiRISE is even capable of resolving details on the rover itself:

enter image description here Mars Orbiter Images Rover and Tracks in Gale Crater, www.nasa.gov

If the ESA wants to fake a crash-landing on Mars they must first explain why the ship, and more importantly the crater it made, are only detectable by Mars Express.

I know your next thought is to intercept and modify MRO's telemetry. Unfortunately all of the DSN antennas used to communicate with the orbiter are under physical control of the US government, and two of them are not in ESA member states.

In order to alter MRO's data, the EU would have to mount one of the most sophisticated cyberattacks ever conceived against the world's most paranoid nation (who is also one of the two world superpowers in cybersecurity), and remain undetected for years under heavy and immediate scrutiny from the engineers who designed and built the instruments and the scientists who have been analyzing data from them for a decade. In short, impossible.

Even if you think this is achievable, you have to do it twice: India's Mars Orbiter Mission has a resolution high enough to see a the crater that would be left, and the instruments to verify Mars Express' "detection." MOM communicates via India's own IDSN network, which is physically located in India.

Also: you wouldn't want to.

ESA wants to get more respect and more funding.

As others have mentioned, when ESA eventually comes up empty-handed and their deception is revealed, they will have neither respect nor funding, and end up a disgrace not only to the EU but to the entire scientific community. My advice is therefore don't even try.

  • $\begingroup$ Is HiRISE not operated by NASA? And in the OP's question, NASA are in on it... $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ @colmde I interpreted OP's statement "they decide to fake Martians but for doing it for real, we need more money and to join forces with NASA" as if ESA were to discover life on Mars ("for real") they'd need to cooperate with NASA (probably not true?), so they instead decide to fake it themselves (since "we kinda hate NASA"; also probably not true). I'll ask for clarification. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ @colmde Actually now that I look back in the edit history, it seems like OP means that ESA fakes the alien crash landing in order to receive money and assistance from the hated NASA (again, I think OP overestimates the actual amount of animosity between the two). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ @colmde OP has confirmed that my interpretation was correct. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 17:30

Here's what you can do to generate interest and funding, without damaging future funding prospects, instead of intelligent life, say that you've found evidence of microorganism life. Say that the soil activity is more than what you'd expect from non organic soil, and you need to send a second mission to bring the tools needed to verify the findings of the first probe. Publish blurry images, enough to generate interest, but not enough for independent third parties to do proper scrutiny.

Once you've got the funding you needed, you can evade the questioning by claiming that the evidence of microorganism turns out to be contamination from earth microorganism. You can milk even more funding by generating interest for these questions, you'll need even more advanced tools to verify that these microorganisms aren't actually earth born.

It will be really hard to proof your wrong doing.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure this would motivate any additional funding. I mean, heck, if NASA announced they found microorganisms on Haley's Comet, my reaction would be, "Eh. That's cool, I guess." It certainly wouldn't be, "Holy *##%%, we need to get congress funding a series of Haley Comet missions immediately!" $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 17:08

I'd go with an artifact in the soil - anything big is obvious, and would seem a massive coincidence if you e.g. had an explosion after you sent your probe, but none before despite it being under observation for a good long time.

So you need something that only your probe could have discovered, wouldn't be susceptible to observation, and makes 'intelligent life' the only explanation.

So - a 'pottery shard' is clearly the answer - these are found all the time on earth, and it's not actually all that uncommon to find pieces that are hundreds of years old. Something made out of a close approximation of martian materials, but in concentrations and formations that cannot be naturally occurring - pottery is clay that's shaped, painted, glazed and kiln fired.

Would need to make it so that's it's plausibly 'made on mars' e.g. in terms of radioisotopes, materials, etc. And then just 'hide' it in the rover, to be 'discovered' by one of the digging elements when you look at an interesting rock formation.

The fabrication is pretty cheap, comparatively (although, you might need to figure out how it's made given not much water being available). You don't have the advanced carbon dating mechanisms that you would have on earth which is a really good way of proving fakery. And a pottery shard - especially with a pattern on it - is clear signs of intelligent life at some point.

(I am of course, leaving aside the other reasons not to do this, which other questions have covered quite well).

  • $\begingroup$ Although carbon-14 dating wouldn't work on Mars exactly the same way as on Earth, any serious Mars rover would have a spectroscopic analyzer capable of radiometric dating. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 15:53

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