I remember the thrill that ran through me the first time I saw the famous photograph of the Martian Face. I was a little kid, maybe five or six or a little older, in the early part of my astronomy phase, ready and willing to latch onto anything that offered hope for life on other planets, no matter how flimsy or suspect. I saw that Mars Face, photographed by the Viking 1 orbiter in 1976, and my heart jumped into my throat. What was it? Who built it? What was it doing on Mars? It was exhilarating just to ask the questions.
To the right is the Mars Face as most of us have seen it. That renowned picture is actually rather misleading — the “eyes” and “mouth” are shadows caused by the angle of the sun, and the black dot that gives the appearance of a nostril is really blank point where data is missing, not a feature at the actual site. Even considering those factors, the picture is a little spine-tingling. Imagine working for NASA in the 1970s, sorting through images sent back across tens of millions of miles by a spacecraft and finding in one of those images a human face staring up at you. It has to startle even the most hardened, skeptical scientist, at least a little, at least at first.
Some are more than startled by the Face — some are true believers. Richard Hoagland has claimed virtually since the image of the Face was published that it is evidence of an ancient, extinct Martian civilization, that it is the massive Martian analogue to the Great Sphinx of Giza. His website, The Enterprise Mission, contains numerous essays and videos where Hoagland and others who share his interpretation of the Viking image argue strenuously that the Face is not an optical illusion and not the natural result of erosion. Hoagland is serious. He thinks there are ruins of ancient cities on Mars, and he thinks NASA knows and is hiding the truth from the public.
Last week I started reading The Demon-Haunted World, a wonderful and fascinating book written by Carl Sagan in 1996. Sagan devotes an entire chapter to the Martian Face. As one would expect, he’s a little skeptical of suggestions that it’s an artificial structure. In the book Sagan writes,
It’s hard to be sure about a world we’ve seen so little of in extreme close-up. These features merit closer attention with higher resolution. Much more detailed photos of the “Face” would surely settle issues of symmetry and help resolve the debate between geology and monumental sculpture. . . . I hope that forthcoming American and Russian missions to Mars, especially orbiters with high-resolution television cameras, will make a special effort — among hundreds of other scientific questions — to look much more closely at . . . what some people call the Face[.]
Though Sagan died before he had a chance to see them, higher resolution images of the Martian Face — located in a region of Mars called Cydonia — were taken by subsequent missions and released to the public in 1998, 2001, 2006 and earlier this month. Below is the latest image of the Face, taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released April 11, 2007.
Carl Sagan’s skepticism is validated, I think. True believers like Hoagland disagree, but to me this looks like the top of a mesa with some features that vaguely resemble a human face, more like the Man in the Moon than the striking monument suggested by the Viking image. I still see a face in the new hi-res image, but after looking at the original picture for so many years, it’s impossible not to. Objectively, I think you have to admit there’s nothing there but a natural landform that occasionally takes on a coincidental face-like appearance, depending on where it’s photographed from and how the light hits it.
A mountain on Mars that just happens to look a little like a human face is a pretty big coincidence, but not as improbable as you might think. There’s a much more impressive feature right here on Earth — the Badlands Guardian, near Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada — that looks a lot more human when viewed from orbit than the Martian Face, and even seems to sport an American Indian headdress and an iPod. It was discovered by Lynn Hickox, a woman from Australia who found it while browsing Google Earth. Click the image below for a bigger version.
Should they even bother trying to finish that Crazy Horse monument?