Way back in the earlier days of planetary exploration, there was a plucky little pair of spacecraft known as Viking 1 and 2 that photographed much of Mars between about 1976 and 1980. They returned thousands of photographs that provided the first global mosaics of the planet and are still sometimes used today (such as in my own research where there are gaps in the higher-resolution THEMIS coverage).
Among the regions photographed is Cydonia Mensae, named after a history city-state in Crete, that lies in the northern hemisphere. The region is very odd, geologically, lying on the border between very old regions and very young regions of the planet. Among the features in this odd region, however, is the infamous Face on Mars.
Pareidolia is a fairly interesting facet of human psychology. Put very succinctly, it is the phenomenon where people find patterns where there are none. One of the most common, every-day examples is seeing things in clouds, like a duck or a car or your Aunt Beatrice.
Astronomy is really all about pareidolia – pattern recognition. Every single constellation is due to pareidolia (except triangulum, which is just a triangle of stars). Most of the common names of clusters and nebulae are due to pareidolia (North American nebula, Wild Duck cluster, or Coat Hanger Cluster, for example).
One of the features of pareidolia is that people will recognize a human face in almost anything. That’s the whole concept behind “smilies” that are in so many instant messages and internet forums these days. Two dots and an arc make a “very obvious” smiley face: : ). It can be made even more convincing by adding a line: : – ). Or a circle around it: ☺. Or, WordPress seems to actually insert the smiley for me unless I add spaces, so: :).
I go through this exercise as a prelude to the “face on Mars” because all it is is an example of pareidolia wrapped up in conspiracy and sacred cows.
Viking’s Face on Mars
The image on the right is the infamous face on Mars, as seen from Viking. It’s a feature that’s just about 70 pixels in height. It is also full of data drop-outs — that’s what all the black dots are. And that’s why this face appears to have a nostril. In fact, when I look at this image, I see the nostril there and my brain automatically thinks that it’s part of the image. But I ignore the other black dots. Again, just an example of really how pareidolia works.
Now, to nip this in the butt from the onset, it was NASA who first said this looked like a face. When it was released, people drew attention to the feature and pointed out that it looked like a face. However, it was dismissed as pareidolia by the Viking chief scientist, Gerry Soffen, who said it was a “[trick] of light and shadow.”
It was NOT later that someone else thought it did and NASA was all hush-hush about it. Among others, Richard Hoagland is probably the main proponent of this, and he sees it as evidence of a long-lost martian civilization. He also sees pyramids, ruined cities, tunnels, and other features on the planet. He also believes that there is an ancient civilization on the moon and that the Apollo astronauts were sent there to retrieve artifacts from it. This post is meant to talk about the face, though, and not meant to get into Hoagland’s beliefs (that could fill a book, and he has … I will likely address some of his ideas in future posts).
Newer, High-Resolution, Different Sun-Angle Images
As the heading of this section suggests, the face has been imaged again over the last 30 years. Craft such as the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Express have all photographed parts of the planet, including the “face,” and including a 3-D perspective simulation:
From each of these, you can make out the features that gave rise to the original pareidolia effect of a face, but you can also now see that it’s really just a rock formation. It is not a well-carved human face. It was, as Soffen put it, just a trick of the shadows.
Accusations of “Processing” to Remove the “Face”
To be blunt, Hoagland has often accused NASA and others of either not processing images at all or processing them too much and removing “evidence” for his ideas. He has done this so many times in so many ways and writes so much about it (for example, here) that I really would rather not spend the time to go through every single one of his claims. Rather, I will give a brief overview of what “processing” images means in astronomy.
When most people take an image with a digital camera these days, they click the shutter, take the photo, plug it into their computer, and save it, maybe printing it or posting it on some social networking site. That’s really about it.
However, when astronomers take images, there is a standard procedure to take. First, the data from the camera has to be relayed to Earth. Because bandwidth is limited, it is often compressed. When it reaches Earth, image artifacts are removed in a known, set, mathematical way to remove things like bad pixels, an uneven sensitivity in the detector, dust on the camera lens, and other things.
If it’s a color image, then all of the different colors have to be processed in the above manner. Then they are each assigned a color and merged. VERY RARELY are images presented in “true color” – what the human eye would see. Often, one of the color channels is infrared (which we can’t see) or ultra-violet (which we can’t see) or the visible color filters do not match the color receptors in the human eye. They are usually combined to enhance certain colors or features to make them stand out better for later analysis. Usually, only when images are re-processed later for press releases are they done to approximate “true color.” They are also further compressed – usually shrunk in size and saved with lossy image JPG compression – before released.
With this in mind, any accusation that the original images that show the face were “unprocessed” and the latest ones are, or vice versa, is ridiculous. It’s simply not true, and setting up a straw man to argue from.
The “Face on Mars” is an excellent example of the pareidolia phenomenon. There are others in astronomy – and on Mars – which I will address in other postings, but this one is the classic. I hope that this post has shown you how the brain can be deceived as well as given you an overview of some of the conspiracy claims surrounding the “face” feature.
For more information on pareidolia, I highly recommend the “SGU 5×5” 6-minute podcast on the subject, “Skepticism 101 – Pareidolia” from Sept. 24, 2008 (note – link is for an MP3 file).
For more detailed information on standard astronomical image processing, I even more highly recommend a page from my photography site, “Creating Astrophotos.” It focuses more on images from telescopes than spacecraft, but the basic concepts and processes are the same.