Behind the camera: Viking I space probe
Where: 40.8° N, 9.6° W Mars
Photo Summary: A mountain formation on Mars that looks like a face
Picture Taken: July 25, 1976 as the Viking 1 space probe orbited Mars
This image is in the public domain because it was taken by NASA
Together with Bat Boy, and Elvis the “Face on Mars” has haunted supermarket checkout Tabloids for years. NASA scientists call it merely an interesting rock formation that happens to look like a face. The faithful call it an artificial monument created by Martians as a sign, perhaps a warning, to us or other Aliens.
Where on Mars
The Face is a large mountain or mesa in the Cydonia region of Mars. It is located at around the 40.8° N, 9.6° W, that’s 40.8°N of the Martian equator. Approximately 3 km long and 1.5 km wide the face was first photographed on July 25, 1976, when the Viking 1 space probe was in orbit taking pictures. The Viking 1 was snapping photos of possible landing sites for its companion ship, Viking 2 when it shot what appeared to be a giant head.
The Viking spacecraft beamed the potential landing sites back to earth where NASA planners pored over the images to find a landing spot. When NASA scientists first saw the head the facial features were thought of as a neat coincidence. The decision was made to release the image in the hopes of spurring the public’s interest in Mars and space exploration in general.
This picture is one of many taken in the northern latitudes of Mars by the Viking 1 Orbiter in search of a landing site for Viking 2. It shows eroded mesa-like landforms. The huge rock formation in the center, which resembles a human head, is formed by shadows giving the illusion of eyes, nose, and mouth. The feature is 1.5 kilometers (one mile) across, with the sun angle at approximately 20 degrees. The speckled appearance of the image is due to bit errors, emphasized by enlargement of the photo. The picture was taken on July 25 from a range of 1873 kilometers (1162 miles). Viking 2 will arrive in Mars orbit next Saturday (August 7) with a landing scheduled for early September.
Cydonia, the area of Mars where the face is located is covered with mesas that rise high in the air, the surrounding areas having been eroded by the thin Martian air, and possibly water, over billions of years. NASA Scientists saw the image as a simply a large mountain similar to mesa’s found in Arizona deserts. The low image resolution of Viking camera made the “face’s” features appear smoother than what they would be in real life. Plus the shadows give the perception of facial features. After all the brain is trained to find patterns, especially faces, in the things we see around us which is why we see things in clouds or the man on the moon. This brain’s function even has a name: pareidolia (payr.eye.DOH.lee.uh) n. The erroneous or fanciful perception of a pattern or meaning in something that is actually ambiguous or random. Finally, as talked about in the NASA caption, a bit error or a part of the image was lost in transmission appeared right where a nostril would be on a humanoid head. It is these lost “dots” or “bit errors” that give the original image a spotty appearance.
Face becomes famous
When the image was released it captured some attention but it wasn’t until the face was re-discovered three years later that it really captured the public’s imagination. Computer engineers Vincent DiPietro and Gregory Molenaar, under contract at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, had been intrigued by the face and another nearby structure shaped like a pyramid, now called the D&M pyramid after its two discoverers. Poring over NASA picture archives they found 10 images taken of the face and surrounding area but only 2 where high-resolution of the face. Using a new software they had developed called SPIT (Starburst Pixel Interleave Technique) they were able to digitally enhance the images. The results of enhanced images appeared to reveal more detail of the face including, “mouth, teeth, eye sockets, eyeball and pupil, and hairline or headress, and the FACE appears to be bysymmetrical.”
The Monuments of Mars
By this time public interest in the face and the potential of a lost civilization on Mars exploded. A cottage industry of books, conventions, science fiction plots about the Face on Mars quickly sprung up seemingly lead by Richard Hoagland. In his book The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever he talks about the face and other surrounding formations that he and others have deemed evidence of a lost civilization. Included in these other “structures” are a pyramid, fortress, ruins of a city, and much more. Fringe groups who have thought that the pyramids of Egypt and South America were either inspired by or actually built by Aliens quickly pounced on the pyramid civilization on Mars theory as proof that Aliens have visited both planets.
Aerial images of the pyramid do look similar to the shots of the supposed pyramid on Mars. However, if the Face on Mars was an artificial structure why does it look straight up? The face itself is huge if you were to stand on the ground surrounding the structure you would have trouble making out the features so why would a civilization spend vast amounts of energy building something that they couldn’t even enjoy? Past civilizations on Earth have always built great monuments like this in a standing or upright sitting position i.e. Sphinx so that they could be viewed by worshippers/subjects on the ground.
While Hoagland and his fellow band of believers were working themselves into a fevered pitch pointing out new artificial landmarks on the Martian landscape NASA was preparing to the next Mars visitor. The Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) began orbiting Mars on September 12, 1997, and much to the shock of the proponents of artificial life on Mars NASA did not first go to Cydonia to re-map the Face of Mars. NASA scientists refused to acknowledge that the Face of Mars is a priority and stated something to the effect of, we’ll get around to it eventually. The public outcry was so great to revisit the Cydonia region that NASA was forced to change its timetable and agreed to re-photograph the Face of Mars and surrounding formations as soon as possible.
On the 5th of April,1998, MGS flew over the Cydonia region for the first time. The MGS was able to take pictures 10 times sharper than the original Viking photos. As it passed over the Face thousands of earth bond enthusiasts held their breath but … there was no face. Pictures beamed back to earth showed that the Face of Mars was in fact just another mountain and on closer inspection looks nothing like a face.
Of course, this did not faze the hard-core believers who pointed out that the Face on Mars is located at 41 degrees north Martian latitude. At that degree, it was winter in April 1998, winter on Mars is a cloudy time of year. True-believers clung to the belief that the MGS camera images were distorted by winter clouds! If only NASA could get shots on a clear Martian day. Then surely the face would be there for all to see.
On the 8th of April, 2000, such a day happened to come along. A cloudless summer day in Cydonia, MGS (MGS even now continues to orbit and photograph Mars having mapped almost 5% of Red Planet’s surface) took its most recent pictures: “We had to roll the spacecraft 25 degrees to centre the Face in the field of view,” said Jim Garvin, chief scientist for NASA Mars Exploration Program. “It’s not easy to target Cydonia,” said Dr Garvin. “In fact, it’s hard work.” MGS is a mapping satellite that looks straight down and scans like a fax machine in 2.5 km-wide strips. “We just don’t pass over the Face very often.”
Again the photos confirmed that the Face on Mars is natural not a face with no eyes, no nose, and no mouth. This time the MGS was able to use laser altimetry data to confirm even more that Face is natural.
Of course, not even this has convinced the die-hard believers. Google “Face of Mars” and you will get hundreds of sites claiming that even with the recent MGS Passovers there is enough evidence to prove that the face is artificial and that NASA is trying to cover up life on the Red Planet by providing distorting images and refusing to do certain photographic tests to prove that the Face of Mars isn’t natural. If you yourself are on the fence thousands of pictures taken by MGS have been placed online and you can scan Mar’s many volcanoes, canyons, ice fields, weather systems and even the latest images of Cydonia and the “Face.”