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Space Buffs Eager for New Photos to Clarify the Fuzzy Face on Mars : Science: The spacecraft Observer is scheduled to arrive Tuesday and begin sending back high-resolution pictures to JPL.

August 22, 1993|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONROVIA — Nightfall was magic for Patrick Kelly as a boy growing up in the Bay Area town of Redwood City.

That was when he trained his cheap telescope skyward and looked for craters on the moon or for the Milky Way. And he poured over pulp magazines from the 1920s and '30s that featured articles about life on Mars.

Kelly, 60, an art teacher at Clifton Middle School in Monrovia, later became entranced by certain fuzzy pictures of Mars taken by NASA's two Viking spacecraft in 1976. He and other believers became convinced that the pictures of curious rock formations show evidence of past civilization on Mars, the fourth planet from the sun, a place with pink skies, towering mesas and rolling sand dunes.

Now Kelly is anxiously awaiting new, close-up pictures of the planet from the $980-million Mars Observer spacecraft, launched by NASA in September, 1992, and designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The spacecraft will arrive at Mars on Tuesday and begin its orbit around the dusty, icy planet.

The Mars Observer's $21-million high-resolution camera is expected to produce stunning black-and-white photographs, 40 times more clear than Viking's pictures. Objects the size of a compact car will be visible in roughly 10,000 photographs that the Observer will produce through October, 1995, project scientists said.

Other cameras will produce color photographs, which are expected to be released in mid-September. Besides the photographs, the Observer will send back information to scientists about the planet's surface, weather and atmosphere.

But the photographs are what Kelly and other Mars-watchers are pining for. Some Mars buffs believe that Viking's photographs show pyramids and fortresses. Others point to a mysterious formation known as the "face on Mars," a fuzzy picture of a rock formation with details of what appears to be a human-like face. Their theory is that the face and other formations were Martian-built messages, left for explorers to find.

After Kelly heard about the "face" on a radio program, he made Mars-watching his hobby, buying up books on the subject and writing hundreds of letters to congressmen, reporters and NASA scientists, pleading for further investigation. Kelly, who is married and has four grown children, said the Observer's pictures could validate his boyhood dream of life on other planets. Maybe, he said, people would stop calling him crazy after that.

"I am convinced that this is one of the greatest affairs to face the human race," he said. He waits "with high excitement, tinged with a great deal of apprehension."

Scientists dismiss the "face" image as a trick of light and shadows. Arden Albee, chief scientist for the Observer mission, said he does not expect the photographs to show evidence of civilization. "That's not realistic at all," he said.

But Albee added: "You can't rule out, that in isolated places, that something might have been preserved, probably only a fossil or traces. There is some small chance there might be algae preserved in a hot spring deposit. . . . We're asking whether life actually evolved at some time on that planet, but there is almost no (scientist who) would suggest that there is anything like life as we know it."

Others are anxiously awaiting the Observer's orbit for different reasons.

Michael Malin, who designed and oversees the Observer's sophisticated camera for JPL, was a Caltech graduate student who was at a meeting at JPL when the project was conceived in 1981. NASA's Solar System Exploration Committee had broken into small groups to talk about a study of Mars. Someone jotted down ideas on the board: Let's send up a spacecraft to look at the planet's topography, magnetic field and chemical composition.

The ideas became real, said Malin, 43. If all goes well with the camera, the Observer will send back "just spectacular pictures of the planet."

"It's a lifelong fulfillment of a lifelong dream," said Malin, who now lives in San Diego. "The equivalent feeling must be the pride and wonderment of the birth of a child."

Stamp collectors are also on pins and needles. Classified ads in national newspapers are hawking a stamp set called "Face on Mars," issued by the West African republic of Sierra Leone in 1990. The four-sheet stamp set, which includes pictures and drawings of the "face" and other Mars features, are being advertised for as much as $8,500 in The Times.

Investors are banking that the stamp set would skyrocket in value if the Observer sends back pictures that indicate life on Mars. Mortgage loan broker Joe Tucky, 49, has gotten about 20 calls in the last month on his ad, which offers the stamp set for $780. But he didn't buy the stamp sets just for the investment value.

"I'm one of these people who happens to believe that there's no way you and I are the only intelligent beings who evolved from nature," the Huntington Beach resident said. "I'd love to have it validated that there's somebody out there."

He added a plea: "Don't make me out to be a kook or anything."

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