A Mars Makeover

New NASA pictures end an old debate-almost

Newsweek/April 20, 1998

When NASA released the first pictures of the region of Mars called Cydonia, taken by the orbiting Viking I in 1976, even the agency's own researchers joked that the little blur in the corner looked a heck of a lot like a face. Officially, they said it was nothing but a trick of light and shadow. To those who believed in UFOs, ancient alien civilizations and other tropes of the paranormal, NASA's attitude screamed "conspiracy." In books, at conferences and, more recently, on dozens of Web sites, they argued that the Face (and a nearby collection of objects they called "the City") were relics of an intelligent civilization on Mars. Last week, taking advantage of a photo op provided by some tinkering in the orbit of Mars Global Surveyor (now circling the Red Planet), NASA took the first new picture of the Face in two decades. The result: it doesn't look like a face anymore.

What it does look like is a mesa with an asymmetrical top and a stick-straight edge. Why the difference? The Surveyor camera captures objects barely 15 feet across, 10 times smaller than Viking could see. The sun was higher in the sky, and the camera was at a different angle. "It looks like a perfectly natural eroded object," says Arden Albee, project scientist for Surveyor.

Of course, any fan of "The X-Files" will tell you that's exactly whet NASA would say. "UFOlogists" like Richard Hoagland, head of the private Enterprise Mission, thinks NASA or a contractor doctored the image by reducing its resolution. "They must really be scared of what's down there," he says. Scientists outside NASA who've made Cydonia their hobby weren't as lurid. "I don't think the question of artificiality can be resolved with this picture," says Mark Carlotto, an image-processing expert who has analyzed the Face.

This picture probably couldn't have quieted believers in Martians, no matter what it showed. "You underestimate these people," says Dennis Stacy, co-publisher of The Anomalist, a journal of the paranormal. "They have books and talk shows pending." But most agree that the real triumph was getting NASA to accede to public demand that it chase evidence of UFOs. That was the real conspiracy here, and it worked-even if it didn't turn out the way the UFOlogists expected.

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