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.
Viking had much lower spatial resolution than HiRISE, and at the time the picture was taken, 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.
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,
Here’s the HiRISE image in black and white:
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.”
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.
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today’s Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT’s Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is the author of the new book “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.