Midweek Cuckoo: The Face on Mars

In 1976 the Viking Orbiter took a picture of a random piece of the Martian surface in a region known as Cydonia. And when that picture was beamed back to earth, someone amusedly noted “Face!” on the printout. And it does look remarkably like a face. For most of us, this is an amusing coincidence, an example of the phenomenon of pareidolia that causes us to see the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich. But for others, the reason the Martian mesa looks like a face is not due to a curious arrangement of light and shade and low quality imagery, but because it is a giant face. And to them, no amount of evidence will ever prove that it isn’t.

The fantasiser-in-chief of this lot is Richard Hoagland. He has made a decent living for nearly two decades out of his assertions that it is not only a face, but that it is surrounded by the ruins of an alien city. I’ve spoken of Hoagland before, in a previous midweek cuckoo, but recent events have prompted me to focus on the Face on Mars in general.

So lets look a the photos, shall we? Here’s the first one, taken in 1976 and the cause of all the fuss:


Yep, it looks a lot like a face. So much so that in 1998 when the Mars Global Surveyor was sent to our neighbouring planet, its itinerary specifically included reimaging the ‘face’. The result?


Oh look, no face! Naturally the believers immediately responded that it was all a conspiracy and that NASA was involved in a big coverup, probably with the illuminati and the lizard aliens or something. Hoagland himself came forward with every reason under the sun why the image was unacceptable: too processed, not processed enough, the methods used to take it, the methods not used to take it, the way it was released, the idea that not all the photos were released… as Phil Plait says, “anything to distract from the fact that no matter what, it just doesn’t look like a real face”.

So in 2001 NASA imaged it again, just to be sure:


Well, you can see in this image how if the light were to strike the mesa just right, it would definitely look a lot like a face. But that’s worlds apart from actually being a face. Yet the debate raged on. And now, the European Space Agency have thrown their hand in and used the Mars Express to image Cydonia. And they didn’t just take one picture, they took multiple, from all different angles, and built up a 3D image of the ‘face’. Check it out:


Yep, still just an amusingly shaped mesa. To quote one blogger in his comment on the Bad Astronomer’s post about the latest images:

If that IS a face, then the Martian sculptors really stank. Worst. Extraterrestrial. Facial. Carving. Ever.

Of course, the latest theory is that NASA directed one of the mars rovers to the area and detonated the secret onboard nuclear warhead, thereby destroying the one side of the face in order to cover it up. It just goes to show, you can’t keep a good crackpot down.


4 Responses to “Midweek Cuckoo: The Face on Mars”

  1. Methinks Dicky Boy is viewing the lovely Siren of Cydonia through a serious set of beer goggles.

  2. Well, DUH, they’re ALIENS, of course their faces look like mesa’s!
    But surely a more logical explanation of why it doesn’t look like a face any more is that NASA is not going back to the same spot.

  3. don’t be absurd – a government agency that smart?

  4. yeah, that’s always been part of why the idea of a govt conspiracy just doesn’t fly. We’re expected to assume that the government that killed 3000 people without any evidence that they did it, is the same government that couldn’t hide the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq? Please.

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