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Mesa Me!

Week of April 13, 1998

The big news in astronomy last week, which came as no surprise to most people, is that the supposed "Face" on Mars is nothing more than a large, naturally formed mesa. But it's true. For years, some people have accused NASA of covering up a conspiracy of secrecy about the images originally taken in 1976 by the Viking spacecraft. Superficially, the rock does resemble a face, though to my eye it does not look human; more like a chimpanzee. Still, this did not deter some conspiracy theorists from deciding it was built by aliens in an attempt to communicate with us. usually, these theories were accompanied by detailed analyses of the images.

I have some passing knowledge of image analysis, having spent the past decade or so working with Hubble data. Every analysis used by the "Facers", for lack of a better word, appeared to me to be trying to overmagnify the image. Objects they saw in the face, such as teeth in the mouth and pupils in the eye, were clearly what are called "image artifacts"- little blips in the image caused by camera defects, noise in the detector, things like that (an example is a lens flare in pictures taken near the Sun). When you overmagnify an image, image artifacts become a real nuisance. That is, if you are trying to do actual science.

Regardless, new data taken by the Mars Global Surveyor, currently in orbit around Mars, show that the "Face" is simply a large mesa, or raised area, much like you'd see in Arizona or Utah. The images show that when you start with superior images, the "Face" is just a vaguely face-like structure, and our eyes have made it look familiar to us. I urge anyone with doubts to go outside on a cloudy day and look at the clouds. You'll see faces in them everywhere, some of them uncanny representations. Our brains are hardwired to see faces (many theorize it's how we learn to recognize our mothers when we are infants), so it's no surprise to find them in clouds, rocks, or anything with random patterns. What amazes me is that we only found one formation on Mars that looks like a face... though I have seen one that looks like Kermit the frog.

You have the right not to believe me. I speak for no one but myself, and I will happily point you to a site that disagrees rather strongly with what I have said here. I caution you to note that the man in charge of that site, Richard Hoagland, is making millions off his claims, and so may be monetarily disinclined to admit that he was wrong. I have read his claims of NASA faking even the latest data (ironically one claim I have heard, not from Hoagland, is that NASA over-reduced the data!) and I am unimpressed. The claims don't make much sense to me, and it sounds like he is more interested in dazzling with jargon rather explaining things well. I suggest taking his web site with a grain- or better yet, a silo full-- of salt.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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