About Face for Mars

March 1998
By Robert Novella

Early this April, Mars turned the other cheek and its face disappeared. More detailed and differently illuminated pictures of “The Face on Mars” now show no face at all. What appears instead is what skeptics have suspected all along, an eroded butte or mesa. It’s even been compared to a sandal print or chili pepper but no one is saying it is a face.

On the morning of April 5th 1998, the Mars Global Surveyor all but ended twenty two years of controversy by taking the most detailed pictures yet of the Cydonia region of Mars which include the infamous “Face on Mars.” This new image was ten times the resolution of any prior picture taken and clearly shows it to be a natural formation. Arden Albee, project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said the image shows the features to be simply “erosional remnants” of rock shaped by water or wind.

Twenty-two years ago on July 25th 1976, the Viking 1 orbiter surveyed Mars for potential landing sites for the Viking 2. Among the sixty thousand images sent back to Earth was a close up of the Cydonia Mensae region showing what appeared to be a human face. Mainstream scientists did not think it was anything other than a trick of light and shadow, but when the press got hold of the picture the face took on a life of its own.

In the intervening years dozens of books and thousands of articles have been written. Some were the result of valid speculation but many made extrapolations and espoused theories fit only for tabloid headlines (where many in fact appeared, by the way). All believers agree that the “Face” is artificial, created either by Martians or other extra-terrestrials but theories soon diverged far from this common point. Some say it is part of an ancient city, an immense tomb or even a civilization living beneath the surface of Mars. Still others have devised complicated and intricate mathematical relationships between the “Face” and the positions of other ostensibly artificial artifacts nearby. All of this is offered as evidence of intelligent design and therefore intelligent creators who must be trying to send us a message. An increasing number of people believe that NASA is involved in a conspiracy to cover up evidence of the true nature of the “Face,” going so far as to destroy the billion dollar Mars Observer Probe in August, 1993 to avoid photographing artificial structures on the planet. A few believers suggest that the images are proof of a secret space program from earth that has established bases on the moon as well as Mars. Some have even seen Elvis.

In light of the latest images one would think that the controversy would be permanently laid to rest. Human psychology, however, has shown time and again that this is unlikely. Richard Hoagland, chief proponent of the “Face” and author of The Monuments of Mars, was quick to assert that when the raw image was enhanced to improve contrast, too much data had been removed. “It’s like looking at a TV with a bunch of snow on it.” The speciousness of this argument becomes apparent when one considers that similar enhancements were done to the original images, which had one tenth the resolution of the new ones. There is therefore much more noise in the older enhanced images. Even the right nostril of the old “Face,” a feature that adds much to the impression of a face, was revealed not as a shadow but a bit error, an area where data was lost during the transmission to earth, it does not correspond to an actual feature on the Martian surface.

Apart from the human tendency to retain old beliefs despite new and contradictory evidence there is also hardwired into the human brain the tendency to impose order on chaos. We are exceptionally adept at finding familiar patterns in images created by random and chaotic forces. Another area of Mars contains an arrangement of landforms that looks curiously like Kermit the frog. Are we to believe that it was deliberately created? Of course not; why should the “Face” be any different. How many times have you seen a face in the clouds or some other natural formation? This is because face recognition is also hardwired in our brains. The specific pattern of a human face is more familiar to us than any other and we therefore are more likely to impose it on random patterns that are only vaguely similar. Even newborns have been shown to be innately predisposed to human faces. Of the millions of square miles of terrain on Mars that we have photographed and examined it would be highly unlikely that we do not occasionally find a human face or other familiar shape in the random patterns of eroded hills and valleys.

There is now considerable evidence that the “Face on Mars” is just a naturally eroded rock outcropping that, when lit from a certain angle, gives the illusion of a human-like face. The latest images show the structure lit from the southeast instead of the west and it is under this illumination that the natural origin of the ”Face” becomes apparent. Michael Carr, geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey stated: “It’s a natural formation… I hope this has scotched this thing for good.” Maybe it will or maybe it won’t, either way we should be reveling at the irony of the face, not pondering its significance.

Here’s the latest image of the face from April 2001:

Two very unusual features on Mars. Do these also indicate alien intelligence?