Alien 'Face' Recedes Into Martian Myth

Space: NASA photo appears to show a naturally weathered mesa. Some have speculated it is work of alien civilization.

Los Angeles Times

A new high-resolution portrait of the so-called face on Mars, released Monday by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, reveals the enigmatic feature in 10 times greater detail than previously available, showing the eroding features of what appears to be a natural geologic formation.

The more detailed image of the Cydonia region of Mars, where the surface feature was first photographed by the Viking space probe in July 1976, was taken over the weekend by the Mars Global Surveyor as it prepares to systematically map the solar system's fourth planet.

In the years since the indistinct Viking images first captured the public imagination, a veritable cottage industry has sprung up around the mile-long feature. Several books and scholarly articles speculated that it might be evidence of ancient Martian civilization, even as NASA steadfastly maintained it was nothing more than a trick of light.

The image, often dramatically enhanced to heighten its resemblance to a face, became a staple of supermarket tabloid covers. As the ominous visage of an ethereal space being, it achieved minor stardom as a character in an "X- Files" episode.

Aware of the intense interest in the site, JPL took unusual measures to make it clear that the space agency did not alter the data that went into the computer-generated image by posting the raw data on the Internet as soon as it was received, officials said.

"There've been charges of conspiracy and manipulating the data and we want to make it very clear to everybody that no such activity goes on here," said Glenn E. Cunningham, Global Surveyor project manager. "We put the raw data out there so that anybody can . . . process it any way they want."

NASA officials said Monday that the agency would also take no official position on what the image shows, leaving any interpretation to the scientific community.

Several planetary scientists and project engineers said Monday that for them, the new image contained no surprises and no evidence of artificial origin.

"It looks to me like a hill that has been weathered," said Michael Ravine, advanced projects manager at Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, which built the Surveyor camera and processes the images. "It is consistent with the previous image and there is more detail. There have pretty clearly been episodes of erosion and deposition" that caused the distinctive shape of the mesa.

"I don't see anything artificial in it," Ravine said. "If I had seen anything that looked obviously artificial, I would be happy to admit I was wrong, because it would be really, really great. But it just isn't there."

Arden Albee, Global Surveyor project scientist at Caltech, concurred.

"In my own judgment, I would interpret the [face] as natural erosional features. There are layers of relatively soft material that have been eroded. That is my own judgment as a geologist and planetary scientist."

The site, located in the northern hemisphere of Mars, lies at the boundary between ancient uplands and low-lying plains.

The Global Surveyor probe is scheduled to photograph the area again April 14 and April 23.

With Mars Images, NASA Says: Face It, It's a Mesa
The Washington Post

NASA scientists yesterday wiped the "face" off Mars and with it, the belief in some quarters that it was the remnant of an ancient Martian civilization.

At least they hope they did.

More than 20 years ago, one of the U.S. Viking space probes took a photograph of what appeared to some people to be a monumental sculpture of a humanoid face, staring skyward from a hilly desert region of Mars known as Cydonia. Since then, the Martian "sphinx" has generated tabloid headlines, true believers and questions. For some, its stony stare carried intimations of intelligent beings at work on the Red Planet and led more recently to "X- Files"-style suspicions of a U.S. government conspiracy to keep this knowledge from the public.

NASA yesterday released images taken over the weekend by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, which is orbiting the Red Planet on a mapping mission. The pictures show the same site in 10 times the detail and with the sun shining from the opposite direction, compared with the 1976 image.

It's a mesa, scientists have concluded, once again. And the only sculptor at work there is nature. "There will always be a few die-hards, but I think the American people will look at this and wonder what all the fuss was about, " said Surveyor chief scientist Arden L. Albee of the California Institute of Technology.

"Anyone who has flown in an airplane will recognize that this is natural," rather than an artificially constructed feature, he added. "You could see [something like it] in many places on a flight from Washington to L.A. It's not an unusual feature."

Albee said the new images, taken from 276 miles above the surface, confirm previous NASA analysis indicating that the "face" is actually a natural rock formation, an isolated mesa where ridges and gullies cast shadows. The illusion of human features was produced by the combination of light and shadow that prevailed when the original Viking picture was taken on a July day in 1976.

The first Surveyor image of the region, which NASA posted on a Web site in midafternoon (East Coast time), was a dark rectangle with a muddle of lighter shapes, including what appear to be small impact craters, at the location where the mile-wide face had appeared in the Viking image. Subsequently, NASA posted clearer versions of the image.

Groups that believe in the "Case for the Face" (the name of a recent publication that compiles 18 research papers on the issue) plan exhaustive analysis of the new images in coming days and weeks, said Stephen Bassett, of the Paradigm Research Group, a consultant for leading advocates of the theory that the face is the unnatural product of intelligent activity. "There are many layers to this. This is going to be analyzed to death," he said.

In addition to extremely close scrutiny of the photos for such signatures of artificiality as repeating patterns not found in nature (fractal analysis), pro-face groups plan online chats and interviews with experts. The new NASA images will be a topic of discussion at gatherings such as the 10th annual Ozark UFO conference in Eureka Springs, Ark., which begins Friday.

The supposed face has attracted the attention of engineers, computer specialists and others with technical training, including some NASA contract employees.

But some of the more extreme speculation has frustrated mainstream scientists. Some face partisans have claimed to find a city to the southwest of the face, complete with temples, fortifications and monuments with an astronomical orientation.

And some have accused NASA of a vast coverup that included faking the costly August 1993 failure of the $1 billion Mars Observer spacecraft just as it arrived at Mars, so the agency could study the face covertly. NASA scientists have consistently dismissed such a scenario as not only outrageous but unnatural, against their own self-interest and, in any case, impossible to pull off.

NASA's latest attempt to resolve the controversy goes only part of the distance for true believers.

"The real issue is, `What's the next photo,' " Bassett said.

"We're all waiting for them to take the city itself."


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