On 19 June 1976, the first of the two Viking probes reached Mars orbit, and began the first phase of its mission: photograph the surface of Mars so that the engineers back in the JPL lab on Earth could find a suitable landing spot (The entire set of images returned by the probes can be ordered on CDROM from NASA, incidentally). On 25 July, the image to the left arrived. It was of an area known as Cydonia, and showed a two kilometer long feature resembling a human head. The Viking team were keen to drum up public support for their project and had been looking for a suitable image to get people excited, so they put out a press release announcing their discovery.
Of course, they didn’t believe that this was an artificial artifact, and strongly suspected that the ‘Face’ was just a regular butte or mesa, of the sort common in many places on earth. The appearance of a face was just an artifact of the low resolution of the image, and the angle of the sun casting interesting shadows – a coincidence. Photographs from later missions would confirm this theory.
The public reaction was big. The feature became listed in popular books as an ‘Alien Artifact’, and featured in movies, tabloids, radio talk shows and television. It didn’t take long before the Conspiracy mindset kicked in: People started believing that the image revealed a truth that the government didn’t want us to know, and that NASA were doing their best to hide the facts from a public that deserved to know the truth. The roughly pyramid-shaped mountains (one of which seemed to show perfect symmetry) nearby only fueled the fire. This was ironic since the image had been released by NASA engineers, and the press release specifically pointed out the resemblance to a human head!
Nevertheless, public demand required that clearer pictures be taken of the site at the soonest possible opportunity. On 8 April 2001, the Mars Global Surveyor took the picture to the right of the ‘Face’. The sun was shining at about the same angle, so the features are still visible, but the increased detail makes it look far more like a natural phenomenon, and less like the artifact of an ancient civilisation. Further images taken by later missions from different angles and under different conditions continue to reveal the Face as a perfectly ordinary hill on Mars.
But this is not the first time people have seen gigantic artifacts on Mars. Remember the Canals? in 1876, an Italian Priest called Pietro Secchi observed features resembling straight lines through his telescope. The following year, Giovanni Schiaparelli published a map of mars showing these features, which he called Channels. Except that the Italian for channels is ‘Canali’, which was mistranslated into English as ‘Canals’. Before long, everybody was seeing them, and drawing more and more detailed maps. The change in name implied that they were artificial, and the world’s imagination was inspired to imagine a desperate civilisation on a dying planet, building hugely ambitious canals to bring water from the seas to inland cities and farms. This theory was argued most persuasively by the famous astronomer Percival Lowell (most well-known for his connection to the search for Pluto) in his 1895 book.
Lowell also drew this map of Mars, clearly showing all the Canals he had seen. But like the famous Face, as technology improved and clearer images became available, the imagined features became harder and harder to see before they eventually vanished back into our imaginations, from whence they came. There can be no doubt that people will continue to see familiar objects in images returned from space. It’s something we Humans are very good at – spend five minutes watching the clouds, and see what shapes suggest themselves! In the end, these features are nothing more than a celestial Rorshach Test, telling us more about ourselves than any possible alien civilisation.