There was always a flurry of excitement when new images were posted. Everyone peered at their screens making ohh and ahh noises. You would think they would be used to photographs from Mars by now. But these people were not just sightseers gawping. They were geologists, planetologists, meteorologists and a few hopeful microbiologists and paleontologists. What looks like just another rock to the rest of us tells a billion year old story to them. None of them, however, were philosophers.
"What's that in the lower left on image 27?"
"That curved rock? Looks like a folded sediment."
"Heh, looks like a broken pot."
That was when the room went silent. No one said anything. They just peered at that image, wondering.
Someone asked: "Can we make a case to mission control for a closer look?"
Normally these things take days to organise, often a few weeks. A multibillion dollar science programme cannot just change track to take unscheduled pictures, or not without good reason. And people have to be convinced those reasons are good. Nevertheless the images were ready two days later. The rover had moved three metres closer and the cameras had focussed on the rock.
"It still looks like a broken pot."
"Is that a handle?"
"No, that's a spout. The handle is the D shaped thing on the other side."
"It's a… teapot?"
"A broken one. Yes. I mean it can't be, of course, but that's what it looks like."
"Imaging are having a laugh, aren't they."
"If they are they're going to be in deep trouble. They moved the rover for these pictures."
"Can we get more detail on those markings down this side? It's caked in dust but they seem sort of regular."
"Like a pattern?"
"Yes. Maybe we can identify that. It might lead us to the manufacturer. Let's see what Imaging says when we call their prank."
"It is very well done, though. I can normally spot where images get stitched together. This one looks clean."
"I can see the pattern better in infrared. Darker colours radiate more heat. Take a look."
"That's a Royal Doulton pattern. An old one. I've seen it in a book. Uh, my grandmother collected it and had lots of books about stuff she'd like to have owned. That shepherdess pattern is quite distinct. Even broken it's clear enough."
"...Found it. I did an image search. It's quite rare. They did a short run of these in 1952. Tea sets so cups, saucers, sugar bowls and teapots."
"So Imaging really are kidding around."
"There is no way there is a Royal Doulton shepherdess teapot from 1952 lying beside our rover on Mars."
There were more meetings, more questions, raised voices and even one incident of desk thumping. Imaging insisted there was no fakery. They had already published the raw data that made up the images. Anyone could reconstruct those images now. And they all showed the same thing. A teapot. On Mars.
"Tea drinking aliens?"
"More likely some undocumented mission carried it from Earth."
"Remember the Beagle probe? Crashed on Mars. Maybe the Brits put this on board."
"Landed, not crashed. Just didn’t call home. But that was over in Isidis Planitia, nowhere near this.”
"I'm wondering about these marks along this side. They aren't part of the shepherdess pattern. They look like burn marks."
"You mean from an atmosphere burn?"
"It could never survive that."
"Well, it didn't. It broke."
"It would get smashed to powder, surely."
"We need some input from Orbital. Let's see if they think it's possible."
It took a week.
"Yes, it's possible. Just. Fine china is incredibly tough. Even so, most scenarios we tried left us with burned dust. But if the angle is shallow enough to get in four or five bounces along the top of the atmosphere before the main burn, the temperature can keep within tolerance. Remember these things are fired at a high temperature during manufacturing. Then it has to survive the fall. But the aerodynamics of this particular shape are interesting. If there's just the right spin on the main axis, that's the one that would be a vertical line if the teapot were sitting on a table, well it causes more drag than anyone expected. Engineering are a bit excited about it actually. Of course it wouldn't be any use on Earth, but on Mars with less gravity and thinner atmosphere its speed could be a mere half a metre per second when it hit the ground. If that ground wasn't too hard, well, what you see in the pictures is what you'd get."
"But how did it get from Earth?"
"No idea. If it were just a rock I'd say it didn't. I'd say it came from the asteroid belt. You know better than I do that most of the meteorites on Mars come from there. Our scenarios all assumed the kind of delta those rocks have."
"A teapot in the asteroid belt. That, um, sounds familiar."
"...Got it here. Bertrand Russell said it in… oh. He said in 1952 that no one could prove that there isn't a china teapot in the asteroid belt, but that didn't make it true. It was an argument against belief in God, but more specifically about the burden of proof."
"You know, I think someone really is having a laugh. But it's not Imaging."