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Unmasking the Face

Light and Shadow have played tricks on the eyes for probably as long as humans have existed. For nearly 20 years, Martian shadow and light have had a good laugh at some Earthlings, and their attachments and fantasies about a Martian face. But now, after nearly 20 years, the face has been unmasked.

 The Viking spacecraft was launched in the 70's by NASA to put a lander  and an orbiter around the red planet Mars. The lander would return pictures from the surface while the orbiter imaged many areas of interest from above. Breathtaking images were returned and one of them was to become a pseudoscience icon: the Face on Mars.

 Among the many thousands of pictures returned by the Viking orbiter were pictures from the Cydonia region. One of them showed an area that, with the help of shadows resembled  a face. The details in the pictures were minimal because the resolution was poor, only down to 140 feet. So only very large features were visible, the rest blended into a blur. This "face" captured the hearts and souls of the pseudoscience community (pseudoscience is anything which purports  to be based on scientific evidence but which is pure speculation and imagination.)

Almost immediately there were accusations of NASA coverups. Tabloids printed articles about NASA discovering evidence of ancient civilizations on Mars. Expanding on the "face" there were claims of pyramids  and flying saucer debris. At last, the Martians had been discovered! The idea gained a healthy following that still shows up in tabloids now and then.

What people did not stop to consider was that with resolution being so poor, most features were a blur of shadow and light. Whether it was because they did not understand, or because the Great Martian Coverup was more exciting to believe in, the face prevailed. Until now, now with the help of the Mars Global Surveyor , the face has been unmasked.

Last July NASA landed the Mars Pathfinder , and later that year they parked the Global Surveyor in orbit around the planet. The Surveyor has far better resolution than the Viking Orbiter did, achieving an amazing 14 feet resolution. And on April sixth, Surveyor returned an image of the area known as the Face on Mars.

The images showed a large hill, about a mile in diameter across and a few hundred feet high. The Face, and many of the surrounding structures in the Cydonia region, are remnants of ancient mountainous terrain that have been gradually eroded over the eons by wind, water, and ice. For the first half of martian history, water was the primary weathering agent. But as the planet's surface dried up, wind has taken over as the dominant erosive force.

It's amazing what better resolution will do. Gone were the blurry features, to be replaced by clear images of boulders and large rocks, dry riverbeds and hills. There was no face. There were no pyramids, no spacecraft and no evidence of past or present  civilization. Well, that's not quite true, NASA did return some photos which showed the workings of a pretty smart life forms that have achieved spaceflight, they are known as Earthlings! Surveyor imaged the area where its partner, Pathfinder landed and crawled upon the Martian soil. The only Martians are from Earth.

Copyright © 1999 Kathy Miles and Charles F. Peters II