[Abridged and illustrated version of an article which appeared in Quest for Knowledge, Vol. 1, Issue 6, 1997]
For almost twenty years since Vincent DiPietro and Gregory Molenaar rediscovered images of the Face on Mars many have called upon NASA to re-image this strange feature on the Martian surface. But what do we expect to see in higher resolution Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) images of the Face and other nearby objects? Specifically, what will tell us if these features are artificial or natural? And if they are artificial, what might be some implications of such a discovery?
In 1992 Michael Malin, who is now the principal investigator for the MGS camera, suggested that Mars Observer would find one of two things when it re-imaged these objects in Cydonia: "1) roads and buildings, or 2) rock, cliffs, channels, and dirt," - that is, obvious indications that these objects are either artificial or natural. Similar expectations hold for MGS - Mars Observer's successor. But there is a third and, in my opinion, a more likely possibility.
Prior to the launch of Mariner 9 in the early 1970s Carl Sagan published a couple of papers concerning the use of satellite imagery to detect signs of intelligent life on Earth. He found that patterns indicative of terrestrial intelligence such as roads, dams, and urban areas could be seen at ground resolutions of 50 meters/pixel or better. It was his belief that subsequent probes to Mars would be able to find similar patterns there should they exist. But of course, none were found either by Mariner 9 or Viking. And so it was, and remains, the planetary science community's operating assumption that there is no intelligent life on Mars. But Sagan's study had a significant flaw - It was geared toward the recognition of an active planetary intelligence. The real question is what would something like an urban area look like a thousand or a million years after it has been abandoned? Would it still look artificial, or would it blend into the surrounding topography, appearing to be perhaps nothing more than a geological anomaly? Like many ancient archaeological sites where the details have been obliterated, leaving only the faint suggestion of structure.
MGS has two cameras - a wide angle camera that is able to resolve objects on the ground approximately 280 meters in size, and a narrow angle camera with a resolution of about 1.4 meters/pixel from the mapping orbit. Assuming NASA does ultimately target Cydonia with the high resolution camera, what specifically would we hope to see?
1. Confirmation of facial details seen in the Viking photographs such as the eyeball, teeth, crossed lines above the eyes, and broad strips across the Face. These details which were just barely resolved by the 50 meter/pixel Viking camera should be obvious in high resolution MGS imagery.
Subtle details in Face. Contrast enhanced image left showing broad stripes (black arrows) and crossed lines (white arrows). Magnified image on right shows eyeball (white arrow) and "teeth" (black arrows).
2. Determination of whether the overall structure of the Fortress and the regularity of the pattern seen in two of its walls are geological or architectural in nature. Also any indications that the Fortress might be a collapsed (pyramidal?) structure.
Two images of Fortress from 35A72 (left) and 70A11 (right) showing subtle geometrical detail along northeast wall.
Similarity between Fortress and adjacent pyramid. Sequence derived from coregistered images from 70A11 which fades from pyramid (left) to Fortress (right). The images have not been rotated or scaled in size.
3. Further indications of the rectilinear grid pattern in the City discovered by Horace Crater and Stanley McDaniel (e.g., additional mounds lying at grid intersections).
Within the City, a group of small mound-like objects appears to be arrayed in a grid-like pattern.
4. Evidence of possible subterranean features. For example, is the hole at the base of the D&M Pyramid a crater, or an opening leading into the interior of the formation? And is the circular feature at the end of the spiral groove that winds halfway up the side of the Tholus some sort of opening?
Original overhead view of Tholus from 35A72 (top left) with synthetic view from the southeast derived from computed 3D height map (bottom left). Original overhead view of D&M Pyramid from 70A13 (top right) with simulated perspective view from the east (bottom right).
5. Any evidence to indicate that the Cliff might have been excavated from material surrounding the adjacent impact crater.
Elongated mesa topped by a sharp ridge-like feature running down its length ('Cliff') adjacent to impact crater. Although it is located within the crater's surrounding ejecta blanket, there is no evidence of debris flow over or around the Cliff. Also there does not appear to be any evidence of a pre-existing surface removed by differential erosion. One possible interpretation of these observations is that the Cliff was formed (or constructed) after the impact occurred.
If the Cydonia complex is artificial, its existence will raise many questions. For example, one would have to wonder about the site's alignment. Why is it oriented 33.3 degrees north of east, instead of along the compass directions? Because of changes in the location of the Martian poles over time, Tom Van Flandern has argued that the complex was at one time situated at or near the equator and oriented in a nearly east-west direction. But I have found two other sites that have an alignment similar to the Cydonian site which contain pyramidal structures with southern faces that are oriented exactly due south (to within measurement error). This suggests a different reason for the alignment. If it is in fact solsticial, as first suggested by Richard Hoagland, recent research suggests that it was last satisfied as early as about 33,000 years ago (rather than 500,000 years ago as calculated by Hoagland). As mentioned in an earlier column, this is an interesting coincidence as it was a period of rapid evolutionary change on Earth. During this time, modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens) somehow developed sophisticated artistic and cognitive skills - skills that another humanoid species, the Neanderthal, did not have. Could the construction of a humanoid face on Mars have something to do with the sudden appearance of modern man on Earth?
I admit that these speculations may seem a bit far-fetched. But remember, the Red Planet has been full of surprises - from Lowell's Mars crisscrossed by canals and populated by intelligent Martians, to the pre-Mariner 9 Mars which seemed more like the Moon than the Earth, to the Mars that we know to have enormous volcanoes, vast canyon systems, and water channels, to a Mars that now many believe may harbor microbial life. It seems as if the cycle of science and speculation has gone almost full circle.
In the words of J.B.S. Haldane, "It is my supposition that the Universe in not only queerer than we imagine, is queerer than we can imagine." When it comes to Mars, one lesson should be clear: Expect the unexpected.
(Page last updated 27 March 1998)
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