Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Story of the "Face" On Mars

It didn't happen right away.  It festered under the skin for a time and then became part of paranormal lore.
In 1976, The Viking 1 lander sent back an image of the so-called Cydonia region of Mars.  On this photo was what looked like for all intents and purposes, a sphinx-like face staring back up at Viking from the surface of the planet.  It was originally written off as a trick of light and shade, but researchers such as Richard C. Hoagland argued that it was an ancient (or perhaps not-so-ancient) monument on Mars, proof positive that at least at one point life existed there.  Eventually, more "monuments" were found, such as pyramids and other structures that resemble the Luxor area of Egypt.  

Theories bounced all over the place, such as that the Egyptian monuments were built in tribute to alien visitors from Mars or that aliens from other star systems passed through and built the "face" and other monuments for whatever reason.
NASA and astronomers such as Carl Sagan stuck to their guns.  There was no "face" carved on Mars.  It was a natural geological formation.  After all, there are any number of rocky outcroppings on Earth that look like human faces or are shaped like animals.  At least in our eyes they are.  It is a part of human nature to see these things.  It's called "matrixing" (there's that word again!)  We psychologically sort through what we see and match it up with known patterns.  Finding "humanoid faces" in things is a common occurrence.  It is a mechanism that has helped us to survive.  Anyone who has ever looked up at a cloud formation and played the "what do you see" game has done this.  Nevertheless, NASA set about to photograph the same region with the Mars Global Surveyor in order to get a fresher look with better resolution.
The 3D images that came back from the MGS were significantly less dramatic.  They revealed a weathered plateau that was eroded in just the right places to give the appearance of a sphinx...and even then really had to work at it to see it that way.  It was pretty much a case-closed for the "Martian Hypothesis."  Still, the notion of ancient monuments on Mars still has its supporters to this day.

I'll admit it.  The "face" had me going back in the day.  It really does resemble sphinx-like monument in the original photo.  My own pet theory was that there was indeed a civilization on Mars at one point, but it perished when geological changes ensued and all water evacuated to the polar ice cap.  Sure it was a bit disappointing to learn the truth, but that's the way of science.  We all must be prepared to throw out our theories or our even our hopes in light of the facts.  As author Kurt Vonnegut says, we must "kill our darlings."  Trust me, it's an acquired practice.  
Just the same, I'm glad that the "face" came along.  It taught me a valuable lesson in how to temper the eye and to not "just see what I want to see."  Also, I'm thankful for the few years of excitement it generated in me as well as all the fiction it has and yet still could inspire.  I for one was certainly hoping that Arnie was going to climb the face or something in Total Recall ("get your ass to Mars.") 
Take heart, everyone.  Mars has many mysteries to yet uncover and signs of life (perhaps even primitive humanoid) may still be found.  
But it doesn't look like any of them had time to carve a sphinx.

Click here to read NASA's study of the face.  They gave a far more intricate explanation than I have here.

On the earphones now: The Cure

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  1. Yeah, but did Carl Sagan ever see THIS?

  2. Ok, that almost made me spit my beer!