The Face on Mars

In 1976, Viking 1, surveying Martian landing spots for Viking 2, took a picture of the Martian surface that revealed what some of the observers interpreted as a giant monument, about a third of a mile (0.5 km) across, in the form of a human (or humanoid?) face. The Face on Mars has provoked much discussion in the popular press and (more recently) on the Internet. With the canals on Mars long since revealed as nonexistent, the Face on Mars provided new hope, as some saw it, that intelligent life either exists or once existed on Mars. Some commentators even suggested that objects resembling pyramids and other structures could be seen in the vicinity of the face.

Close Encounter

Europa (see Chapter 15, "The Far End of the Block,") a moon of Jupiter, has a frozen surface and may well have liquid water beneath it. Titan (see Chapter 15), orbiting Saturn, has an atmosphere rich in nitrogen, methane, and ammonia. It may also have liquid methane on its surface. So far, these planetary moons, rather than any planet, offer the best prospects for other life within the solar system. However, the prospects are dim, as temperatures on both of these moons are extremely low.

On April 5, 1998, the Mars Orbiter Camera on the Mars Global Surveyor made highresolution images of the face, showing it to be nothing more than a natural formation. The angle of sunlight and the comparatively low resolution of the 1976 image, combined with human imagination, had temporarily transformed this geological feature—really somewhat like a mesa on Earth—into a giant face.

The Face on Mars—as photographed by Viking 1 on July 25, 1976 (left), and as photographed on April 5, 1998, by the Mars Orbiter Camera on the Mars Global Surveyor (two images on the right). (Images from NASA)

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