Extreme Close-Up of the Face on Mars

by Nancy Atkinson on July 28, 2010

The 'face' on Mars, a popular landform in Cydonia Region on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Here’s a picture you probably won’t see in the tabloid racks while waiting in line at the grocery store. This is the famous “Face on Mars,” and is the closest image ever of this landform, taken by the best Mars camera ever, HiRISE on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. And it certainly looks like …. the top of mesa, which is exactly what it is. This feature in the Cydonia region of Mars is most likely a lava dome that has created an isolated mesa or butte-like structure, i.e., a hill. Compare this image to the original image from the Viking orbiter from 1976 image, below, which created such a furor, including a whole new culture of conspiracy theories, books, late-night radio talk show discussion and even a full-length feature film. Alas, its just a hill.

Original 1976 'Face on Mar' image from the Viking Orbiter. Credit: NASA

Viking had much lower spatial resolution than HiRISE, and a different lighting geometry, which made it look like a face. Yes, it does look like a face in this image. But things aren’t always as they appear, especially in low resolution and bad light. These newer and better images, starting with the Mars Orbiter Camera on the Mars Global Surveyor (which took images of the Cydonia region in 1998 and 2001) and now HiRISE — which shows incredible detail from 300 kilometers above the surface — have certainly set the record straight. Unfortunately, some people still cling to the notion of a face on Mars.

Side by side: a Viking 1 photo from 1976, a Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) image from 1998, and an MGS image from 2001. Credit: NASA

Here’s another look at the ‘face,’ a 3D perspective view of the Face on Mars landform, created from an image from MOC, which shows a side view of the feature,

3D persepective view. Credit: NASA/Jim Garvin (NASA) and Jim Frawley (Herring Bay Geophysics).

Here’s the HiRISE image in black and white:

HiRISE image from 2007 of the 'face' on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

And here’s one of my favorites. Jim Garvin, currently the chief scientist of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center created a potential hiking map of the “face,” with a great description: “Hike length is approximately 5.5 km or 3.6 miles one way, with a total elevation gain of nearly a thousand feet. Rating…. easy at start and midsection, with some very steep sections. Take plenty of water and oxygen.”

Potential hiking map of the mesa, previously known as the Face on Mars. Credit: NASA/Jim Garvin

And still, if you need more convincing, here’s an animation created from actual images of the ‘face’ by ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft which provides a full trip around the hill.

For more, including high-res versions of the color image on top and a “Hi-Flyer” of the image, check out this page on the HiRISE website.

Sources: HiRISE, Science@NASA, ESA


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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