“Facing” Reality but Remaining Hopeful for Artifact SETI Within the Solar System: A Critical Analysis of the “Face on Mars”

Is it possible that a civilization could have existed on Mars long enough to monitor the development of the terrestrial species Homo sapiens, recognize its burgeoning intellect and future greatness, and so think to construct a replica of its face out of the geology of their world, all the while leaving no other evidence of their existence into the present era? Or alternatively, is it possible that the solar system has been visited by an extrasolar intelligence who studied the terrestrial biota remotely from the Martian surface for untold eons and thought to construct a human face on Mars, leaving no other traces? These are the kinds of solutions that one would have to invoke to explain the “Face on Mars” feature in the Cydonia region of Mars imaged by the Viking orbiter in 1976. In 1988, Carlotto performed an digital imagery analysis of this unusual feature in an attempt to preclude all unnatural explanations, which he at the end admits that he was unable to do. The complexity of these solutions brings to mind one of the truth assessment protocols utilized in science, the Occam’s Razor. If two competing theories to explain some natural phenomon are equally good, then the one that should be accepted is the one which makes less assumptions. While not universally applicable, it has historically and in many cases shown its effectiveness, as in, for example, the case of explaining the retrograde motions of heavenly bodies based on a heliocentric model rather than on a geocentric model with added epicycles. No, I think it is probably a lot easier to conclude that humans are exceptionally well-equipped with pattern recognition abilities, especially of the facial kind, and that we have anthropomorphically projected this face onto an otherwise completely natural geologic feature on the surface of Mars. In his 1995 book The Demon Haunted World, the astronomer Carl Sagan treated this exact possibility in a rather jocular manner:

“Occasionally, a vegetable or a pattern of wood grain or the hide of a cow resembles a human face. There was a celebrated eggplant that closely resembled Richard M. Nixon. What shall we deduce from this fact? Divine or extraterrestrial intervention? Republican meddling in eggplant genetics? No. We recognize that there are large numbers of eggplants in the world and that, given enough of them, sooner or later we’ll come upon one that looks like a human face, even a very particular human face.”

That is, there were and are a variety of other surface features on Mars and based on the stochastic nature of surface geomorphology it is plain to see that at least a few of them would have features that we would identify as potentially human. In fact, others have pointed out that there exists a multitude of other face-like features on Mars as well, but which did not, for unknown reasons, garner the same amount of attention and scrutiny as the one at Cydonia. The Cydonian face is probably just an example of human credulity and willingness to suspend traditional conventions in the domain of the apparently supernatural. Sagan further writes:

“There was an unfortunate dismissal of the feature by a project official as a trick of light and shadow, which prompted a later accusation that NASA was covering up the discovery of the millennium. A few engineers, computer specialists and others – some of them contract employees of NASA – worked on their own time digitally to enhance the image. Perhaps they hoped for stunning revelations. That’s permissible in science, even encouraged – as long as your standards of evidence are high. Some of them were fairly cautious and deserve to be commended for advancing the subject. Others were less restrained, deducing not only that the Face was a genuine, monumental sculpture of a human being, but claiming to find a city nearby with temples and fortifications. From spurious arguments, one writer announced that the monuments had a particular astronomical orientation – not now, though, but half a million years ago – from which it followed that the Cydonian wonders were erected in that remote epoch. But then how could the builders have been human? Half a million years ago, our
ancestors were busy mastering stone tools and fire. They did not have spaceships. . . Is the Face a remnant of a long-extinct human civilization? Were the builders originally from Earth or Mars? Could the Face have been sculpted by interstellar visitors stopping briefly on Mars? Was it left for us to discover? Might they also have come to Earth and initiated life here? Or at least human life? Were they, whoever they were, gods? Much fervent speculation is evoked.”

As is made clear by these ruminations, much conjecture and fanciful leaps of imagination must be invoked to explain the face when venturing outside of the mundane and routine. It was later shown in a subsequent orbital mission to Mars in 2001 that the Cydonian face had substantially eroded due to surface weathering and presently hardly resembles anything human. This paper is important because although it is a demonstration of our weakness and failure to remain steadfastly objective in the face (pun intended) of something of potentially grave importance, it does also show that our knowledge of the surfaces of solar system bodies is not exhaustive. We don’t know whether there could actually be an object in the solar system for whom the most plausible explanation is extraterrestrial in origin. Therefore, there is a place for SETI even within missions to bodies in our own solar system to establish conclusively whether or not our solar system has been visited by an extraterrestrial probe or emissary.

Author: Alan

Hi, I'm a first year graduate student in the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds.