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The Face on Mars

What is that looking back up at us?

Mars is prominently in the news. Pictures beamed back by Pathfinder are everywhere. Rocks with names like “Barnacle Bill” and “Yogi” are becoming celebrities. Corroboration of theories about vast amounts of water having been on Mars in the distant past and the fossil microbes found in the Mars meteor are spurring speculation about Martian life. When the Pathfinder images of the Martian landscape are shown on TV, I find myself looking intently at the horizon for anything unusual, anything that might be a sign of life.

mars face

Extraterrestrial Intelligence

When I was just a kid, I read all of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series, thrilling to the adventures of John Carter on the red planet that the inhabitants called “Barsoom”. Later, I read Heinlein’s Red Planet and Podkayne of Mars, and then Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Finally, in college, I read Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which is as much about Earth and Earthlings as it is about Mars and Martians.

I was always sure that there must be intelligent life on Mars, even when science was saying that the red planet was bitterly cold and that the atmosphere contained too little oxygen for life as we know it. To the last, I clung to the belief that Schiaparelli and Lowell would be vindicated and that there really would be “canali” or channels on Mars. I was heartened by the fact that telescopic photos of Mars taken at different times of the “year” seemed to show areas of color, possibly vegetation, changing regularly with the seasons.


It was a blow when the Mariner 9 space probe showed in 1971 that there were no canals and no surface water and that the “changing seasons” were actually giant dust storms. It was extremely disappointing in 1976 whenViking landers failed to find life on Mars. It had seemed certain that, if nothing else, the Martian soil would be teeming with bacteria.

Then, in the early 1980s, a couple of computer-enhanced images of a “Face on Mars” taken by the Viking orbiter began to surface. I saw them first when I downloaded the images from a computer bulletin board. Oddly, the sysop of the NASA bbs at the time denied any knowledge of the images in response to an e-mail I sent asking if there were any other images of the “Face”. Later, NASA said that they had already released the images as an example of a “trick of light,” referring to this press release.


The Face lies in an area of Mars known as Cydonia, which was actually the first landing site choice for Viking I. The site was chosen because it was thought to be a likely place for liquid water, but an alternate site in Chryse was decided to be less risky according to Carl Sagan. The Cydonia area is a mixture of fractured desert plains containing frequent mesas (flat-topped eroded prominences) and various types of craters typical of geography throughout the solar system. But at latitude 41 degrees N, longitude 9 W lie a collection of features which some observers believe are not natural formations.

In 1979, two computer scientists with no particular expertise in Martian geology, Vincent DiPietro and Gregory Molenaar, who were working for a contractor at NASA, came across frame 35A72 while going through the Viking photo archives. They computer enhanced the image and concluded that the Face was not a trick of light after all. They also found several mountains that looked like “pyramids” near the Face, and published a book calling attention to the structures. One pyramid, on frame 70A13, was later named the “D&M” pyramid after DiPietro and Molenaar.

There are a number of small mountains on Mars that resemble pyramids, both in Cydonia and in another region called Elysium. Scientists say that they are natural formations, sculpted by the wind blowing from one direction over long periods of time. They say there are similar formations on Earth, particularly in Antarctica, albeit only a few feet tall, called dreikanters.

Richard C. Hoagland

Richard C. Hoagland, the most vocal proponent of the Face, is a former museum curator and a former NASA consultant. During the historic Apollo Missions to the Moon, he was science adviser to Walter Cronkite and CBS News. The plaque placed aboard Pioneer 10 was his idea, and he was also the first to propose the idea that there might be life in the water oceans beneath the icy crust of Europa.

In the 1980s Hoagland took up the cause of the Face on Mars in several books and numerous radio and TV appearances, even making a TV special about the Face which was never broadcast. In the broken terrain of Cydonia, Hoagland sees evidence of a ruined “city”. He claims the City and the Face are aligned in a way that may have, in the manner of Stonehenge, pointed to the place where the sun rose on the Martian solstice half a million years ago (which he says is when the Face was made), although the orientation has no meaning today. Hoagland also claims that NASA photos show possible alien structures on the Moon.

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