The Face on Mars: Evidence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence?

Mac Tonnies

In 1976, a space probe orbiting Mars took a picture of a formation on the surface of the planet resembling a humanoid face. Although originally dismissed as a meaningless curiosity, the Mars Face (located in a region called "Cydonia") has come to define all that is unknown about our closest planetary neighbor. Is it the signature of an unknown intelligence or simply the work of erosion? At first take, the second option is easier to accept. The implications of intelligent life on Mars—let alone intelligence capable of carving a human likeness in the desert—seems resoundingly absurd. Surely the notion that the Mars Face is artificial is the product of wishful thinking.

But regardless of first impressions, the notorious Face on Mars has remained a genuine scientific enigma. Its dimensions and geometry are suspiciously artificial-looking, as would be expected from an intentionally created monument. And rigorous computer modeling has put to rest the conventional wisdom that the Face is a fortuitous trick of light and shadow; the Face remains face-like when viewed from a variety of angles and illumination conditions. Debunkers, who delight in comparing the Mars Face to natural profiles such as the "Old Man in the Mountain," seem blissfully content to ignore the fact that their would-be terrestrial counterparts are only visible under limited viewing conditions. The Mars Face is not only anomalous to the human eye; it is demonstrably strange, at odds with the surrounding terrain.

The history of the controversial Face on Mars has achieved the momentum of urban myth. Our reactions to its enigma betray a smug disbelief, a collective certainty that the solar system we inhabit—although strange—is still essentially the lifeless Newtonian machine we've grown to accept.

At the same time, the notion of extraterrestrial intelligence has begun to squirm its way into the mainstream. The search for ET radio signals (SETI) continues, essentially with the backing of mainstream science and media. Cybernauts across the world run SETI@home, a downloadable number-crunching program, out of dutiful conviction that it's worth doing. Maybe the next fluctuation on the monitor will be the moment we've all been waiting for. Somehow the effort seems worth it. Despite the laudable goals of radio SETI, numerically valid evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence such as the Mars Face and associated features have been systematically relegated to the fringe by orthodox science: unwelcome guests, eccentric neighbors best left ignored.

Our collective dismissal and fear of the Face has affected the very fabric of scientific methodology; when a confirming photo of the anthropomorphic formation arrived in April of 1998, unnamed technicians at Pasadena, CA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory saw fit to obliterate it with an arsenal of arbitrary graphics filters. With the mainstream press placated by what looked like a two-dimensional footprint, NASA hoped the mystery would vanish. But instead, the Face and other features in the Cydonia Mensae region became underground superstars. Hundreds of sites cropped up on the Web clamoring for attention, many of them brazenly claiming that the Martian face was artificial beyond all doubt and going so far as to identify its builders (!). Neighboring formations such as the huge, five-sided "Main City Pyramid" and small-scale anomalies like the "Mound" features scrutinized by Drs. Horace Crater and Stanley McDaniel crowded cyberspace. Curious readers were assaulted by ambiguous close-ups of features billed as "smoking gun" evidence of a prior civilization on the Red Planet.

In the three years that have passed since the Mars Global Surveyor probe returned its tantalizing second glimpse of the Face in 1998, the scientific search for alien artifacts on the Martian surface has achieved an urgency offset only by the predictable scoffing remarks offered by NASA and JPL (whose public statements have led some objective commentators to suggest that the "experts" either don't understand the workings of their own instruments or else feel somehow threatened by the Face's enduring mystery).

Interestingly, rare moments of actual science have occurred online, effectively invisible from society at large. Self-proclaimed "skeptics" unfamiliar with the 10-plus years of fastidious, moderated research that has established the Face as a genuine scientific unknown have continued to maintain the status quo with sweeping denouncements of the features in Cydonia. Many of these attacks have achieved print status, and gain a relatively large audience among readers unaware of the controversy and unable to arrive at their own reasoned conclusions. And NASA, unfortunately, has continued to betray its public pledge to reimage the Cydonia region at "every available opportunity," resulting in a stew of counterproductive conspiracy scenarios.

What little ideological camaraderie the Internet "Cydonia underground" had in 1998 has since become a confusion of claims, counterclaims and accusations of subversive "political" agendas harbored by various loose-knit organizations and individuals devoted to getting to the bottom of the Cydonia mystery.

At the same time, our understanding of Mars itself is in the process of profound mutation. We now know that the rusted sands of our sister world occasionally harbor liquid water, a prerequisite for carbon-based organic chemistry. And the discovery of magnetite particles in a Martian meteorite makes the likelihood for past microbial life on Mars a high probability. Notables such as scientist and author Arthur C. Clarke have publicly claimed that new images from the Mars Global Surveyor show probable macroscopic lifeforms—while NASA, typically, sulks in perplexing silence.

If we cannot officially recognize possible extant plantlife on Mars, how can we hope to democratize the results of a successful search for extraterrestrial intelligence? Radio-based SETI seems ontologically safe enough for establishment science: by SETI's definition, the "aliens"—if they're indeed out there swapping pages of the "Encyclopedia Galactica"—will be conveniently far away. Mars, on the other hand, hovers enticingly in our own celestial backyard. If the prospect of Martian fungus is enough to upset our fragile existential balance, the presence of megalithic structures—left by a civilization about which we know nothing—carries with it nothing less than a redefinition of our species.

We now have a high-resolution frontal photograph of the Face at our disposal. It reveals a formation with astounding correspondences to a humanoid face, with an anatomically correct "eye" visible beneath a heavy "brow," at least one "nostril" (exactly where it should be, if it is indeed intended to represent a nostril), and an inscrutable gaping "mouth." The "eye" and "nostril" features were not visible in the original Viking images of the Face, but were predicted based on the a priori assumption that the Face was an anthropomorphic likeness. (One is naturally forced to wonder what the odds are for a peculiarly eye-like formation occurring naturally precisely where it should be if the Face is merely a pile of rocks.)

The Face rests upon a rectangular platform with unexplained linear adornment along the so-called "headdress," bringing to mind megalithic artwork here on Earth. As Stanley McDaniel has argued, both online and in The McDaniel Report, the apparent aesthetic context presented by the Face is outside the arena of SETI as it is currently defined. The riddle posed by Mars' unlikely sphinx demands assessment by artists, cultural anthropologists and architects as well as digital image processors. The Face on Mars offers a solid challenge to the prevailing SETI paradigm: perhaps the "aliens" (whatever that word might ultimately mean) are not unimaginably distant after all. Indeed, it's not impossible that "they" have some esoteric connection to us, as evidenced by the fact that the Face is demonstrably humanoid.

Rather than drown in too much premature speculation, it is the intention of many scientists and laymen to simply resolve the issue of whether or not the Face is indeed artificial or a remarkably strange natural formation. New robotic missions to Mars (and eventually crewed expeditions to the Red Planet) have the potential to illuminate the Face as what it is. If artificiality on Mars is confirmed--and there's nothing to stop us from confirming (or refuting) it in the coming decades other than bureaucratic reticence--the ensuing social and scientific repercussions are everyone's business. We cannot afford the attitude of smug pseudo-skepticism and denial that now permeates the subject, for whatever reasons.

As has been clear for the past twenty years, the Face isn't going anywhere regardless of attempts to debunk it into nothingness. Like an interplanetary siren, the Face calls to us. Solving its puzzle is an imperative step for the human species as we venture into the Solar System armed with the capability to ask questions and see them through to their logical extremes.

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