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Alien 'Face' Recedes Into Martian Myth

Space: NASA photo appears to show a naturally weathered mesa. Some have speculated it is work of alien civilization.

April 07, 1998|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

A new high-resolution portrait of the so-called face on Mars, released Monday by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, reveals the enigmatic feature in 10 times greater detail than previously available, showing the eroding features of what appears to be a natural geologic formation.

Even so, it is unlikely to settle a 20-year controversy over whether the formation is a fluke of weathering, as most planetary scientists believe, or the work of an ancient alien civilization, as some imagine.

The more detailed image of the Cydonia region of Mars, where the surface feature was first photographed by the Viking space probe in July 1976, was taken over the weekend by the Mars Global Surveyor as it prepares to systematically map the solar system's fourth planet.

In the years since the indistinct Viking images first captured the public imagination, a veritable cottage industry has sprung up around the mile-long feature. Several books and scholarly articles speculated that it might be evidence of ancient Martian civilization, even as NASA steadfastly maintained it was nothing more than a trick of light.

The image, often dramatically enhanced to heighten its resemblance to a face, became a staple of supermarket tabloid covers. As the ominous visage of an ethereal space being, it achieved minor stardom as a character in an "X-Files" episode.

Aware of the intense interest in the site, JPL took unusual measures to make it clear that the space agency did not alter the data that went into the computer-generated image by posting the raw data on the Internet as soon as it was received, officials said.

"There've been charges of conspiracy and manipulating the data and we want to make it very clear to everybody that no such activity goes on here," said Glenn E. Cunningham, Global Surveyor project manager. "We put the raw data out there so that anybody can . . . process it any way they want."

NASA officials said Monday that the agency would also take no official position on what the image shows, leaving any interpretation to the scientific community.

Several planetary scientists and project engineers said Monday that for them, the new image contained no surprises and no evidence of artificial origin.

"It looks to me like a hill that has been weathered," said Michael Ravine, advanced projects manager at Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, which built the Surveyor camera and processes the images. "It is consistent with the previous image and there is more detail. There have pretty clearly been episodes of erosion and deposition" that caused the distinctive shape of the mesa.

"I don't see anything artificial in it," Ravine said. "If I had seen anything that looked obviously artificial, I would be happy to admit I was wrong, because it would be really, really great. But it just isn't there."

Arden Albee, Global Surveyor project scientist at Caltech, concurred.

"In my own judgment, I would interpret the [face] as natural erosional features. There are layers of relatively soft material that have been eroded. That is my own judgment as a geologist and planetary scientist."

The site, located in the northern hemisphere of Mars, lies at the boundary between ancient uplands and low-lying plains.

The Global Surveyor probe is scheduled to photograph the area again April 14 and April 23.

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