Martians carved "the Face"
New technology has revealed many great discoveries on the planets of our solar system. The subject of this myth, however, isn't one of them.
I could explain this myth by comparing this feature to people seeing animals or other objects formed by cloud formations. Instead, we'll go the scientific route.
The Face on Mars is a butte, similar to many that lie around it. Aliens did not carve this feature.
Photo by NASA Mars Global Surveyor
In 1976, NASA's Viking 1 spacecraft was circling Mars, snapping photos of possible landing sites for its sister ship, Viking 2. One of its photos showed the shadowy likeness of a human face. An enormous head nearly 2 miles (3 km) across stared back at Viking 1 from a region of the planet called Cydonia.
Scientists cataloged it as a mesa, a common feature in that martian region. A few days later, NASA unveiled the image to the public. The caption noted a "huge rock formation ... which resembles a human head ... formed by shadows giving the illusion of eyes, nose and mouth."
Since then, the "Face on Mars" has become a cultural icon. It has appeared in books, magazines, radio talk shows, and films. Some people think the Face is evidence of life on Mars — evidence that NASA would rather keep hidden, say conspiracy theorists.
To use science to disprove the alien artifact theory, photographing Cydonia became a priority for NASA when the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) arrived there in September 1997. On April 5, 1998, when MGS flew over Cydonia for the first time, the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) team snapped a picture 10 times sharper than the original Viking photos. When the image first appeared on a Jet Propulsion Laboratory web site, it revealed the Face to be a natural landform. End of story, right?
Not everyone was satisfied. The Face on Mars sits at 41° north martian latitude. And in April 1998 it was winter on Mars, a cloudy time of year. The MOC had to peer through wispy clouds to see the Face. Perhaps, said skeptics, haze hid traces of alien markings.
Seeing how the furor over the Face hadn't diminished, mission controllers prepared to target the area again. MGS was a mapping spacecraft that normally looked straight down and scanned the planet in 1.55-mile-wide (2.5 km) strips. It didn't pass over the Face often.
Nevertheless, on April 8, 2001 — a cloudless summer day in Cydonia — MGS had a second look. The MOC captured an extraordinary photo at the camera's maximum resolution. Each pixel in the 2001 image spans 5.1 feet (1.56 meters), compared to 141 feet (43m) per pixel in the best 1976 Viking 1 photo.
What the picture shows is the martian equivalent of a butte or mesa — landforms common around the American West. Cydonia contains many mesas like the Face, but the others don't look like human heads, so they've attracted little attention. The MGS science team studied them carefully, however, using a laser altimeter called MOLA onboard MGS.
MOLA could measure the heights of surface features with a vertical precision of 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters). The instrument took hundreds of altitude measurements of the mesa-like features around Cydonia including the Face. The height of the Face, its volume, and its aspect ratio — all of its dimensions, in fact — are similar to the other mesas. It's not exotic in any way.
The mesas of Cydonia are of great interest to planetary geologists because they lie in a transition zone between cratered highlands to the south and smoother lowland plains to the north. Some scientists think the northern plains are all that's left of an ancient martian ocean. If so, Cydonia might have sat near the edge of a large body of water. And that's a lot more intriguing to scientists than a mesa that resembles a face.