The Face of Mars

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In 1976, the Viking 1 mission began taking photographs of the surface of Mars, in part to find landing sites for future missions, and also to get a better idea of what Mars was like, to determine the ages of various parts of Mars (done by counting craters, which assumes that once the great bombardment was over, the impacts were more or less regular over time if we think in terms of geological timing.) On the Cydonia Mensae, an image came back that, when refined, looks surprisingly like a face carved into a large rock. Two points are worth mentioning. The first is, if it were such a head, the angle of the light only allows you to see the right side of the head; the rest is in deep shadow. The second is all we received of this object was 64 pixels. The “face” is clearly a butte standing up from the surface (and there are lot of these in the region) and it is about 2.5 km long, about 1.5 km wide, and something like up to 800 m above the average flat ground at its highest point. As you might imagine, with only 64 pixels, the detail is not great, but there is a crater where the right eye should be, a rise that makes the nose, and some sort of “crack” or depression that hints at a mouth, but most of the “mouth” would be in the shade, and hence would be invisible. The image was also liberally splattered with black spots; these were “failed pixels” i.e. a transmission problem. What you see below is that primary image.

640x472 pixels-FC

So, what was it? The most obvious answer was a rock that accidentally looked like a face. To the objection, what is the probability that you could end up with that, the answer is, not as bad as you might think. There are a lot of mesas and rock formations on Mars, so sooner or later one of them might look like something else. There are a number of hills etc on Earth where you can see a head, or a frog, or something if you want to. If you think about it, an oval mesa is not that improbable, and there are a lot of them. There are a very large number of impact craters on Mars, so the chances of one being roughly where an eye would be is quite high (because there is quite a bit of flexibility here) and there are really only two features – the eye and the “mouth”. The rise for the nose only requires the centre to be the highest part, and that is not improbable. As it happens, when you see the whole thing, the left side of the head has sort of collapsed, and it is a fracture offshoot from that collapse that gives the mouth.

However, the image caught the imagination of many, and some got a little carried away. Richard Hoagland wrote a book The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever. If nothing else, this was a really good selling book, at one stage apparently selling up ot 2000 copies a month. Yep, the likes of me are at least envious of the sales. So, what did this say? Basically, Hoagland saw several “pyramids” near the Face, and a jumble of rocks that he interpreted as a walled city. Mars had an ancient civilisation! Left unsaid was why, if there were such “Martians” did they waste effort building pyramids and carving this Face while their planet was dying? For me, another question is why does something this fanciful become a best seller, while the truth languishes?

So what caused this? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. It is reasonably obviously caused by erosion, but what the eroding agent was remains unknown. If you believe Mars once had an ocean, the Cydonian region is roughly where one of the proposed shorelines was. It could also be caused by glaciation, or even wind erosion, aided by moisture in the rock. The freezing/thawing of water generates very powerful forces. What we need is a geologist to visit the site to answer the question, although there would be far more important things to do on Mars than worry about that rock.

Suppose it was carved by a civilization? I included that possiblity in my novel Red Gold. In this, one character tried pulling the leg of another by announcing that it was “obviously carved” by aliens with the purpose of encouraging humans to go into space. “It is worth it,” the aliens would be saying. So why is it so rough? Because the aliens were plagued by accountants, who decided that the effort to do it properly was not worth the benefit; if humans cannot take the hint from the roughly hewn rock, so be it.

It also figures in another of my novels: A Face on Cydonia. Again, it is intended as a joke in the book, but on whom? Why did I do that? Well, I started writing when I heard that Global Surveyor was going to settle this issue, so I thought I should try to have something ready for an agent. However, Global Surveyor, which took very narrow strip images, and could have taken two years to cover this area, took only a few weeks. Out of luck again! Fortunately, the story was never really about the rock, but rather the effect it had on people.

A quick commercial: if anyone is interested, the ebook is at 99 cents on Amazon (or 99p) for the first week of September. The book is the first of a trilogy, but more about people being taken to levels higher than their abilities, and also about what causes some to descend to evil. It also has just a toiuch of science; while you can ignore this and just consider it a powerful explosive, it has the first mention of a chemical tetranitrotetrahedrane. That would be a really powerful explosive, if it could be made, but the more interesting point is why is that there?

More on the Cydonian “Face”

At least one of the readers of this blog indicated an interest for more information on the Face of Cydonia, so here goes. The Face was first noticed in July, 1976, and was considered a trick of lighting. However, two computer engineers Vincent DiPietro and Gregory Molenaar, contracted to the NASA Goddard Flight Centre, processed images using new software, and included a pyramid, about 800 meters high, about 16 km from the Face, in their study. They concluded the Face and the pyramid were hard to reconcile with naturally-formed objects. In 1988, Mark Carlotto further processed the Viking images, and from an analysis of the shadows in the two Viking images, he came up with a three-dimensional reconstruction. Further, he argued that The Face looked like a face from any viewed direction, which does not usually happen with “accidental faces”. He went even further and suggested a second eye socket may be present, and he argued there was fine structure in the mouth suggesting teeth.

The problem with the processing of images is that the processing software invariably contains a bias. The procedure usually looks for contrasts, and enhances strong signal regions and deletes low intensity, but this tends to find things that are not there, or lose things that are. A classic example I can recall came from the “famous” UFO off Kaikoura in New Zealand. A reporter and a cameraman hired an aircraft and took images of an orange light that followed the aircraft. Image-processing software was used. Each run deleted pixels, but no sharpening occurred, so the image was rerun. Finally, all the pixels were removed and the conclusion: there was nothing there! This conclusion is obviously ludicrous, but it illustrates the fact that computer processing merely changes things. In many cases the changes will improve things, but they can make matters worse by leading to a totally incorrect conclusion.

As noted in the previous post, the basic problem was insufficient data. The Viking cameras simply did not have the necessary resolution, mainly because the task they had did not require it. Remember, resolution comes with a price, such as a corresponding reduction in area covered. The reason we only got two images of this zone was that the cameras only imaged this area twice. Mars might be a small planet, but it is a planet, and it takes a lot of thin strips to get the lot. The thinner the strips, the longer the satellite will take to cover everything.

As you might expect, the initial speculations on the Face died down. Most scientists simply shrugged and said, “insufficient data”, while some merely scoffed at the concept. The Face would probably have died a natural death until Richard Hoagland got involved. He pointed out the presence of a rectilinear arrangement of massive structures, together with several smaller pyramids, which he named “The City”. All of this was published in a book, The Monuments of Mars.

Eventually, Global Surveyor produced the image I showed last post, and that should have been the end of it, right? Wrong! If you search the web, you will see items arguing that statistically the chances of the Face being natural are billions to one against. Of course you do not see the details of the calculation. Another interesting point is that Cydonia is littered with mesas like the Face, and these are of interest to planetary geologists because they are in a transition zone between cratered highlands to the south and smoother lowland plains to the north. An argument can be made that the northern plains are the remains of an ancient Martian ocean, in which case the mesas might represent ancient islands. This interpretation is consistent with the erosion around their bases, so the Face might be of interest as providing evidence of such ancient water, if not aliens. In my novel, A Face on Cydonia, I describe an easier means of climbing to the top of the Mesa. I cannot help it if you do not believe this, but I did this from the Global Surveyor images when I wrote it, back in the late 1990s. While rechecking the web, I found a link to a “trail map”, where a NASA scientist indicated where he would climb it. What pleased me is we start in exactly the same place. I am not totally illiterate with images! The link is

http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2001/ast24may_1/#trailmap

Another interesting link  shows some illusions:

*http://www.space.com/11947-photos-mars-illusions-martian-face-images.html   

One final comment. It is obvious that the shape of the butte is either natural or of alien origin, right? Not so fast! In my novel, A Face on Cydonia I try out yet another option. I also promised a link, so:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BQPUG6Q

Suppose the Face were real and alien, the fringe seems to argue that NASA is covering it up. This must go down as utterly ridiculous. If the Face were a real alien monument and demonstrably so, NASA’s budget would fly upwards! And please do not tell me that NASA is not interested in increasing its budget.

The “Face” of Mars

I start my new SciFi ebook, A Face on Cydonia, as follows:

On the Cydonian region of Mars there are two faces staring into space. Both are two and a half kilometers long, a kilometer wide and about four hundred meters high, and since both are in exactly the same place, no observer can see more than one of them. Most see a battered butte with craters roughly in the right place such that, with considerable imagination, the image of a badly torn face can perhaps be seen. Some, however, see a refinement of the enhancement produced from the original low resolution Viking photographs, a truly alien monument, a deep message to humanity . . .

I refer, of course, to the “Face”, which has gained a certain degree of notoriety as people speculated as to what might have created what we see.  Guesses run from Martians, aliens, to natural erosion. Most people would be skeptical and point out that, “You can see faces anywhere, such as clouds,” and dismiss anything other than nature as nonsense. While this face is somewhat different from cloud faces, it has one interesting thing in common: much of the face is hidden in the original image, simply because the angle of the sun shades half of it. One purpose in my novels is to try to show that reality should follow the rules of logic. So, what would logic say? The first question a scientist asks is, are the data suitable to resolve anything? If they were collected for some other purpose, they may not be. The initial data were collected by the Viking orbiter, which had the task of creating the first map of Mars. The map, perforce, had to deal with the major features, so for various reasons it settled on resolution that would give the desired map. Below, see one of the images of the Cydonia Mensae, in which the Face was first seen. Note that the angle of the sunlight shades quite a bit of the Face.

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We can expand and enhance the particular region (small black dots are lost pixels and are not real):

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The initial argument against erosion/adventitious craters was initially, the probability of sufficient coincidences is too low. That argument is false, because what was overlooked was that with so few pixels devoted to the face, coupled with the shading, you do not need much in the way of accidental coincidence. That does not prove it is natural, but rather suggests you need better data before reaching a conclusion.

As I noted in Red Gold, we can immediately eliminate Martians, because the face looks like ours  (if it looks like a face) rather than like a possible Martian’s, and leaving aside the inhospitality of Mars, even had there been such Martians, they would have no idea what our face would look like. There are further reasons: there is no reason why a Martian would carve a face only we could see, and Mars could never have evolved indigenous technological life forms without leaving some evidence of the process. Aliens are slightly more difficult to eliminate by logic. As one of the characters in Red Gold said as a joke, space-traveling aliens who visited Earth, say two million years ago, could have worked out what our faces would look like when we evolved sufficiently to develop the technology to see such a butte on Mars, and they could have carved something. It could then be a message to us, meaning, “Come to space; it is possible and it is worth it.” That still leaves the issue of why would they bother to do that.

All of this speculation almost certainly annoyed NASA considerably. Beside the Face, some thought they saw pyramids. That is not hard to understand, except again the specific lighting in the first picture greatly enhances the possibility, since only a pointed top and an edge is required. Accordingly, when Global Surveyor was sent to Mars, NASA promised to use its better resolution to settle for once and for all what this rock was. Meanwhile, I had thought that all the activity might make it worth while to write  a SCiFi novel about the rock. Of course you cannot simply write about a rock, so I had to construct a story around it. This was slower than I thought, and Global Surveyor settled this issue, one of its images being reproduced below:

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The end of speculation about aliens! Well, not necessarily in fiction! (Actually, not necessarily in reality, as can be seen if you check the web!) I started my novel A Face on Cydonia with a television program that showed the image of the butte, intending to show how silly people were to think there could have been aliens, when the image morphed into the Viking-type image and winked. Eventually, this lead to an expedition, in which the members all have problems with each of the other members, and the book focuses on these problems. To add to the mix, there are at least three attempts from an external agent to murder at least one of them. Then, to keep the story going, each of the participants finds exactly what they did not want to find, and I set up a situation for more story by having each of them look forward to a future where they will have to carry out what they do not wish to do.

For those interested, in next post I shall give a link to A Face on Cydonia.