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What’s the Truth Behind the Face on Mars?

written by: Anurag Ghosh•edited by: RC Davison•updated: 5/27/2010

When images of the face on Mars were released by NASA, mystery mongers and conspiracy theorists declared it as the first bona fide evidence of life on Mars. Is the "face" an example of an alien construction or just an optical illusion? Read on…

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    The Beginning

    On July 25, 1976, a perplexing image was transmitted by the Viking I spacecraft to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory while taking photographs of the Cydonia Mensae region of Mars. The region lies between the northern plains and heavily cratered southern plains in the northern hemisphere of the red planet.

    To the surprise of mission controllers at JPL, the image revealed a huge land formation that looked like a human face. But the excitement was short lived as they recognized that it was just a natural formation. The face on mars image was unveiled to the public and soon attracted the attention of scientists, space enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists.

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    The Face on Mars: An Extraterrestrial Construction?

    The Face on Mars: Viking I photograph Although NASA knew the core reason behind face on mars, many people believed it to be an artificial formation of extraterrestrial origin. The first one to overtly declare the “face” as an alien construction was author and radio commentator Richard C. Hoagland. His book “The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever” argues that the face on Mars is an artificial structure built by extraterrestrial intelligence. He also claimed that there are huge pyramid-like structures arranged in geometrical pattern surrounding the huge face.

    Soon, computer specialists and scientists digitally enhanced the images and claimed that the structure was sculpted to resemble a human face. Some linked the ancient structures of Peru and Egypt with the face on Mars. They claimed that an ancient alien civilization was responsible for building these structures and the face. Soon, the “face” found its place in popular culture. It appeared in movies, television series, comic books and even video games and became a bon fide evidence of life on Mars.

    (image, left: The Face on Mars sent by the Viking I spacecraft. credit: JPL/NASA)

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    The Scientific Reason Behind the Face on Mars

    The Face on Mars: Three photographs side by side One of the most convincing explanations behind the face-like formation was given by Carl Sagan. He explained the formation was a result of winds and erosion and nothing artificial. NASA had a more detailed explanation. Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirmed that the formation was nothing but an optical illusion caused by camera resolution, light and shadows. The formation was one of many mesas that are scattered all over the Cydonia Mensae region. Mesas are elevated areas of land that have steep cliffs and a flat top. They are formed by erosion and weathering.

    In order to prove this, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) once again flew over Cydonia Mensae on April 5, 1998 and captured images of the same area using Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC). The resolution of the images were 10 times sharper than the Viking I photographs. With bated breath, thousands of web searchers browsed the JPL website for the latest “face on mars” images. But to their utter astonishment, the image revealed a natural landform without any distinct facial features.The Face on Mars: 2001 Mars Global Surveyor Image 

    Although the 1998 photograph was sharper, the 2001 image was more detailed. On 8th April 2001, the Mars Global Surveyor drew more closer to take fresh pictures through the MOC. The spacecraft captured a very high resolution photograph of the face. A Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) on board MGS was used to measure the altitude of the face and other mesas. Using the MOC image and the elevation measurements of the laser altimeter, NASA’s Jim Garvin and Herring Bay Geophysics' Jim Frawley produced a three dimensional perspective view of the Face. There was neither any formation of angle nor any distinct facial features, only a plain land form.

    (Image, bottom right: the 2001 image of the Face on Mars clearly shows a mesa without any distinct facial features credit: MSSS.com NASA/JPL)

    (Image, top left: Compare the three images of the Face . the first one was snapped in 1976, the second in 1998 and the third in 2001, Credit: NASA/JPL science.nasa.gov)

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    Conclusion

    Old Man of the Mountain Today, the face 0n Mars image is seen as an optical illusion. After the 3D analysis of the higher resolution images sent by the MGS, NASA clearly stated that "a detailed analysis of multiple images of this feature reveals a natural looking Martian hill whose illusory face-like appearance depends on the viewing angle and angle of illumination". You can find similar optical illusions on Earth as well. The best examples are the Badlands Guardian in Alberta, Canada and the Old Man of the Mountain in the state of New Hampshire in the US. Today, the face on Mars is just another urban legend.

    [image, left: Old Man of the Mountain, a group of five granite cliff ledges on Canon Mountain (White Mountains, New Hampshire USA). when viewed from a particular angle, the five ledges appear to be resemble the face of an old man, credit: wikipedia]