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Mysterious light on Mars caused by cosmic rays or glinty rock, experts say

UNDATED (Michael Roppolo/CBS News) -- A mysterious glint in a photo taken by NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover has excited both UFO and extraterrestrial believers who thought they'd found proof that perhaps there is life out there in the vast emptiness of space.

The photo, which was originally beamed down to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, showed a so-called "mysterious" glint of light.

It was first noted by blogger Scott Waring, who wrote on his blog, UFO Sightings Daily: "This is not a glare from the sun, nor is it an artifact of the photo process. It has a very flat surface giving us 100 [percent indication] it is from the surface."

However, experts say the glint can be easily explained by a number of known phenomena. Some say it could be the work of cosmic rays, which can affect the camera.

"On Earth, our atmosphere absorbs [cosmic rays] so they don't have much of an effect on cameras down here. But if you put a telescope in space, they are bombarded by these little beasties," said former NASA astronomer and author Phil Plait, who writes the "Bad Astronomy" column on Slate. "When a cosmic ray slams into the electronic detector in the camera, it deposits some energy in the pixel (or pixels) where it hits."

He says you can tell because the rover's navigation camera -- known as the NAVCAM -- is actually two cameras, one on the left and one on the right, which provide a binocular view of the landscape to help determine distances of objects.

"At the same time NAVCAM RIGHT took the picture with the light in it, NAVCAM LEFT also took a picture...and there's no light," Plait explains. The supposed glint of light on the horizon may have been just a glitch in one of the camera shots.

Although NASA has yet to officially comment on the phenomenon, the Jet Propulsion Lab has told news organizations that it might be a glint from a rock.

Justin Maki, a member of the Mars Pathfinder Imaging team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained to FoxNews.com that since the the bright spots appear in one of the cameras -- but not the other -- and the right-eye images show the spot in different locations, it was probably either a vent-hole light leak or a glinty rock.

(c) 2014 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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