What is Cydonia?

Image of the "Face of Mars" by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with the Viking 1 image inset (bottom right). Credit: NASA/JPL

The surface of Mars has been the subject of fascination for centuries. Even sinceGiovanni Schiaparelli first announced that he had observed the “Martian Canals” in 1877, the Red Planet has been a source of endless speculation. Even today, crystal-clear images sent directly from the surface by rovers are still the subject of pareidolia – where people see familiar patterns in random features.

Nowhere has this tendency of seeing what we want to see on the surface of Mars been made more clean than with the Cydonia region. Located in the northern hemisphere, this region of Mars is known for its many interesting land forms. The most famous of these is the “Face of Mars”, which has attracted immense scientific and popular curiosity over the past few decades.

Location:

The area called Cydonia is in the northern hemisphere of Mars, in between the heavily cratered regions of the south (the Arabia Terra highlands) and the smooth plains to the north (Acidalia Planitia). The area includes the regions of flat-topped mesa-like featured (“Cydonia Mensae”), a region of small hills or knobs, (“Cydonia Colles”) and a complex of intersecting valleys (“Cydonia Labyrinthus”).

Cydonia Region under infrared light. Credit: NASA/JPL
Image of the Cydonia region under infrared light taken by the Viking 1 orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL

Because of its geographical location, it is possible that Cydonia was once a coastal plain region, billions of years ago when the northern hemisphere of Mars is believed to have been covered with water. The name – like many featured on Mars – is drawn from classical antiquity; in this case, from the historic city-state of Kydonia, which was located on the island of Crete.

Exploration:

Cydonia was first photographed by the Viking 1 and 2 orbiters. Between the two, eighteen images were taken of the region, all of which were of limited resolution. Of these, only five were considered suitable for studying surface features. Because of their limited quality, a particular mesa resembled a humanoid face (see below).

It would be another 20 years before other spacecraft photographed the region as they conducted observations of Mars. These included NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, which orbited Mars from 1997 to 2006; the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which reached the planet in 2006 and is still in operation; and the ESA’s Mars Express probe – which has been in orbit since 2003.

Each of these missions provided images of Cydonia which were much better in terms of resolution and debunked the existence of an artificial “Face of Mars” feature. After analyzing images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor, NASA declared that “a detailed analysis of multiple images of this feature reveals a natural looking Martian hill whose illusory face-like appearance depends on the viewing angle and angle of illumination”.

A section of the Cydonia region, taken by the Viking 1 orbiter and released by NASA/JPL on July 25, 1976. Credit: NASA/JPL
A section of the Cydonia region, taken by the Viking 1 orbiter and released on July 25, 1976. Credit: NASA/JPL

Notable Features:

As already noted, Cydonia’s best known feature is the famous “Face of Mars“. This 2 km long mesa, which was first photographed by the Viking 1 orbiter on July 25th, 1976, initially was thought to resemble a human face. At the time, the NASA science team dismissed this as a “trick of light and shadow”. But a second image, acquired 35 orbits later at a different angle, confirmed the existence of the “Face of Mars”.

Vincent DiPietro and Gregory Molenaar, two computer engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, independently discovered this image while searching through the NASA archives. From 1982 onward, these images would lead  widespread speculation about what could have caused it, and fueled interest in the possible existence of a civilization on Mars.

In addition, DiPeitro and Molenaar noticed several mountains near the “Face” that had angular peaks, which they referred to as “pyramids“. One in particular, a 500 meter-tall mountain located to the south-west, was especially geometric in shape. Richard Hoagland, a famous conspiracy theorist, dubbed it the “D&M Pyramid” (in honor of DiPietro and Molenaar), a name which stuck.

Last, but not least, there is also the area to the north of the “Face” that was dubbed “the city”, because of its supposed resemblance to a series of monuments. These consisted predominately of more ‘pyramids’ that are arranged in a circular pattern around a series of smaller rocky features, known as the “City Square” (see below).

Mosaic created from images taken by the Viking orbiter, showing landforms in Cydonia with popular, informal names. Credit: NASA/JPL
Mosaic created from images taken by the Viking orbiter, showing landforms in Cydonia with popular, informal names. Credit: NASA/JPL

Later images provided by the Mars Global Surveyor, the MRO and the Mars Express all resolved these features with far greater accuracy, showing them to be natural features with no evidence of construction of manipulation. In all cases, psychologists indicated that the desire to see familiar shapes and patterns was an example of pareidolia.

And this was hardly the last time that this phenomena has happened with Martian features! In fact, the human race has a long history of seeing patterns within our Solar System and the cosmos in general. Consider the “Man in the Moon”, the Butterfly Nebula, and the “Mickey Mouse” on Mercury.

As for the Cydonia region, future missions to the planet may take an interest in exploring it further. However, this will most likely to get a better understanding of the regions past and see it was indeed a coastal region at one time. There will be NO attempts to search for signs of ziggurats, pyramids, ancient sarcophagi, or any other indications of a lost civilization.

We have written many articles about the Cydonia and other features on the surface of Mars. Here’s Extreme Close-Up of the Face of Mars, Pyramids on Mars, Detailed Deconstruction of the “Face” and Pyramids on Mars Claims, Faces and Animals on Mars? Pure Pareidolia!, Faces of the Solar System, No Humanoid on Mars, Just Rocks, and No, a Dinosaur Skull Hasn’t Been Found on Mars: Why We See Familiar Looking Objects on the Red Planet.

If you’d like more info on Mars, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Mars, and here’s a link to the NASA Mars Exploration home page.

We’ve also recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast all about Mars. Start here, Episode 52: Mars.

Sources:

No, a Dinosaur Skull Hasn’t Been Found on Mars: Why We See Familiar Looking Objects on the Red Planet

What is up with the fossils on Mars? Found – a dinosaur skull on Mars? Discovered – a rat, squirrel or gerbil on Mars? In background of images from Curiosity, vertebrae from some extinct Martian species? And the human skull, half buried in photos from Opportunity Rover. All the images are made of stone from the ancient past and this is also what is called Pareidolia. They are figments of our imaginations, and driven by our interest to be there – on Mars – and to know that we are not alone. Altogether, they make a multitude of web pages and threads across the internet.

Is she or isn’t she, a face on the red planet Mars? Discovered in the thousands of photos transmitted to Earth by the Viking orbiter in the 1970s, the arrival of Mars Global Surveyor included Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) which revealed details that put to rest the face of Cydonia. Actually, it is alive and well for many. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL- Viking/MGS, GIF – Judy Schmidt)

Rock-hounds and Martian paleontologists, if only amateur or retired, have found a bounty of fascinating rocks nestled among the rocks on Mars. There are impressive web sites dedicated to each’s eureka moment, dissemination among enthusiasts and presentation for discussion.

At left, MSL's Curiosity landed not far from a sight hard to leave - Yellow Knife including sight "John Klein". Inset: this authors speculative thought - mud chips? At right, is Mars enthusiasts' Bone on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL, Wikimedia)
At left, MSL’s Curiosity landed not far from a sight hard to leave – Yellow Knife including sight “John Klein”. Inset: this authors speculative thought – mud chips? At right, is Mars enthusiasts’ Bone on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL, Wikimedia)

NASA scientists have sent the most advanced robotic vehicles to the surface of Mars, to the most fascinating and diverse areas that are presently reachable with our technology and landing skills. The results have been astounding scientifially but also in terms of mysteries and fascination with the strange, alien formations. Some clearly not unlike our own and others that must be fossil remnants from a bygone era – so it seems.

Be sure to explore, through the hyperlinks, many NASA, NASA affiliates’ and third party websites – embedded throughout this article. Also, links to specific websites are listed at the end of the article.

The Dinosaur skull on Mars is actually dated from Martian Sol 297 (June 7, 2013). The imager used to return this and an historic array of landscapes, close-ups and selfies is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). MSL Curiosity includes the NAVCAM, cameras for navigation, HAZCAM, MASTCAM,and MARDI cameras. Together, the array of images is historic and overwhelming raising more questions than answers including speculative and imaginative "discoveries." (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL)
The Dinosaur skull on Mars is actually dated from Martian Sol 297 (June 7, 2013). The imager used to return this was the MASTCAM and an historic array of landscapes, close-ups and selfies has been produced by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Other MSL Curiosity cameras are the NAVCAM, cameras for navigation, HAZCAM and MARDI camera. The array of images is historic and overwhelming raising more questions than answers including speculative and imaginative “discoveries.” (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL)

The centerpiece of recent interest is the dinosaur skull protruding from the Martian regolith, teeth still embedded, sparkling efferdent white. There are no sockets for these teeth. Dinosaur dentures gave this senior citizen a few extra good years. The jaw line of the skull has no joint or connection point with the skull. So our minds make up the deficits, fill in the blanks and we agree with others and convince ourselves that this is a fossilized skull. Who knows how this animal could have evolved differently.

But evolve it did – within our minds. Referencing online dictionaries [ref], “Pareidolia is the imagined perception of a pattern (or meaning) where it does not actually exist, as in considering the moon to have human features.” I must admit that I do not seek out these “discoveries” on Mars but I enjoy looking at them and there are many scientists at JPL that have the same bent. Mars never fails to deliver and caters to everyone, but when skulls and fossils are seen, it is actually us catering to the everyday images and wishes we hold in our minds.

No one is left out of the imagery returned from the array of NASA's Martian assets in orbit.  Mars exhibits an incredible display of wind swept sand dunes (center photo). (Photo Credits: NASA, Paramount Pictures)
No one is left out of the imagery returned from the array of NASA’s Martian assets in orbit. Mars exhibits an incredible display of wind swept sand dunes (center photo). (Photo Credits: NASA, Paramount Pictures)

The “Rat on Mars” (main figure, top center) is actually quite anatomically complete and hunkered down, having taken its final gasps of air, eons ago, as some cataclysmic event tore the final vestiges of Earth-like atmosphere off the surface. It died where it once roamed and foraged for … nuts and berries? Surprisingly, no nuts have been found. Blueberries – yes – they are plentiful on Mars and could have been an excellent nutritional source for rats; high in iron and possibly like their Earthly counterpart, high in anti-oxidants.

The Blueberries of Mars are actually concretions of iron rich minerals from water - ground or standing pools - created over thousands of years during periodic epochs of wet climates on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL/Cornell)
The Blueberries of Mars are actually concretions of iron rich minerals from water – ground or standing pools – created over thousands of years during periodic epochs of wet climates on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL/Cornell)

The blueberries were popularized by Dr. Steve Squyres, the project scientist of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. Discovered in Eagle crater and across Meridiani Planum, “Blueberries” are spherules of concretions of iron rich minerals from water. It is a prime chapter in the follow-the-water story of Mars. And not far from the definition of Pareidolia, Eagle Crater refers to the incredible set of landing bounces that sent “Oppy” inside its capsule, surrounded by airbags on a hole-in-one landing into that little crater.

When the global dust storm cleared, Mariner 9's fist landfall was the tip of Olympus Mons, 90,000 feet above its base. Two decades later, Mars Global Surveyors laser altimeter data was used to computer generate this image. At left are sand dunes near the north pole were photographed in 2008 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (MROC). The sand dunes challenge scientists' understanding of Mars' geology and meterology while fueling speculation that such features are plants or trees on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL)
When the global dust storm cleared, Mariner 9’s first landfall was the tip of Olympus Mons, 90,000 feet above its base. Two decades later, Mars Global Surveyors laser altimeter data was used to computer generate this image(NASA Solar System Exploration page). At left are sand dunes near the north pole photographed in 2008 (APOD) by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera. The sand dunes challenge scientists’ understanding of Mars’ geology and meterology while fueling speculation that such features are plants or trees on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL)

Next, is the face of Mars of the Cydonia region (Images of Cydonia, Mars, NSSDC). As seen in the morphed images, above, the lower resolution Viking orbiter images presented Mars-o-philes clear evidence of a lost civilization. Then, Washington handed NASA several years of scant funding for planetary science, and not until Mars Global Surveyor, was the Face of Cydonia photographed again. The Mars Orbiter Camera from the University of Arizona delivered high resolution images that dismissed the notion of a mountain-sized carving. Nonetheless, this region of Mars is truly fascinating geologically and does not disappoint those in search of past civilizations.

At left, drawings by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli coinciding with Mars' close opposition with Earth in 1877. At right, the drawings of Percival Lowell who built the fine observatory in Flagstaff to support his interest in Mars and the search for a ninth planet. H.G. Wells published his book "War of the Worlds" in 1897. (Image Credits: Wikipedia)
At left, drawings by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli coinciding with Mars’ close opposition with Earth in 1877. At right, the drawings of Percival Lowell who built the fine observatory in Flagstaff to support his interest in Mars and the search for a ninth planet. H.G. Wells published his book “War of the Worlds” in 1897. (Image Credits: Wikipedia)

And long before the face on Mars in Cydonia, there were the canals of Mars. Spotted by the Mars observer Schiaparelli, the astronomer described them as “channels” in his native language of Italian. The translation of the word turned to “Canals” in English which led the World to imagine that an advanced civilization existed on Mars. Imagine if you can for a moment, this world without Internet or TV or radio and even seldom a newspaper to read. When news arrived, people took it verbatim. Canals, civilizations – imagine how imaginations could run with this and all that actually came from it. It turns out that the canals or channels of Mars as seen with the naked eye were optical illusions and a form of Pareidolia.

So, as our imagery from Mars continues to return in ever greater detail and depth, scenes of pareidolia will fall to reason and we are left with understanding. It might seem sterile and clinical but its not. We can continue to enjoy these fascinating rocks – dinosaurs, rats, skulls, human figures – just as we enjoy a good episode of Saturday Night Live. And neither the science or the pareidolia should rob us of our ability to see the shear beauty of Mars, the fourth rock from the Sun.

Having supported Mars Phoenix software development includin the final reviews of the EDL command sequence, I was keen to watch images arrive from the lander. The image was on a office wall entertaining the appearance of a not-so-tasty junk food item on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona, Illustration - T.Reyes)
Having supported Mars Phoenix software development including the final reviews of the EDL command sequence, I was keen to watch images arrive from the lander. The image was on an office wall entertaining the appearance of a not-so-tasty junk food item on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona, Illustration – T.Reyes)

In the article’s main image, what should not be included is the conglomerate rock on Mars. NASA/JPL scientists and geologists quickly recognized this as another remnant of Martian hydrologics – the flow of water and specifically, the bottom of a stream bed (NASA Rover Finds Old Streambed on Martian Surface). Truly a remarkable discovery and so similar to conglomerate rocks on Earth.

Favorite Images From Mars Rover Curiosity, NASA/JPL

The BeautifulMars Project: Making Mars Speak Human, University of Arizona

MRO HiRISE, High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, University of Arizona

Nine Planets, Mars, general information and links to many other sites

Mars Phoenix Lander, University of Arizona web site

Mind-Blowing Beauty of Mars’ Dunes: HiRISE Photo, Discovery Channel

Two Sources of Mars Anomaly Imagery and Discussion: One, Two

Faces And Animals On Mars? Pure Pareidolia!

As kids, my friends and I would stare at clouds on lazy summer afternoons and point out faces and animals we saw in their folds and domes. When the light was right, some of them looked as detailed and real as if chiseled by a meteorological Michelangelo. Later, with kids of our own, we often revisit this simple pleasure.

image of the "Virgin Mary" appears in the glass of a Tampa, Florida office building on Christmas Day 1996. Credit: Wikipedia
image of the “Virgin Mary” appears in the glass of a Tampa, Florida office building on Christmas Day 1996. Credit: Wikipedia

Patterns can materialize anywhere – old men with scraggly beards in carpeting, blocky visages in road cuts and even Jesus on toast. Here are 50 more fun examples. Our instinctive ability to find patterns in the often random mish-mash of nature is called pareidolia (pair-eye-DOLE-ya).

The late planetary scientist and astronomy popularizer Carl Sagan believed pattern-recognition was part of our evolutionary heritage:

“As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains,” wrote Sagan. “Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper.”

Maybe it’s simpler than that. Face-recognition is critical because we ultimately need each other for survival not to mention keeping track of the kids in the grocery store. Pattern recognition also helped us find food back in the days of hunting and gathering. The ability to distinguish a particular plant or animal against the background noise meant the difference between a full belly or starvation.

The infamous Mars Face (left) photographed in comparatively low resolution by the Viking orbiter in 1976 and a much higher resolution view made by current Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA
The infamous Mars Face (left) photographed in comparatively low resolution by the Viking orbiter in 1976 and a much higher resolution view made by current Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA

Pareidolia also works its magic across the cosmos. To narrow the scope, I’ve selected images taken of Mars, the most fertile planet for imaginary faces around. Who doesn’t remember all the hubbub over the “Face of Mars”? Old Viking spacecraft images from the mid-1970s taken at low resolution in slanted lighting seemed to show a face carved of rock staring back at Earth.

Since pareidolia works best when the stimulus is vague or the object unclear the “face” was perfect. Our brains are more than happy to fill in fictional details. Later photos taken at much lower altitude with higher resolution cameras made the face disappear; in its place we clearly see an eroded mesa. Then there’s the so-called “Bigfoot on Mars,” (an extremely very tiny Bigfoot) and later someone zoomed in on a small rock and said there was a gorilla on Mars. Information equals identity, lack of detail opens the door to anything we might imagine.

Here are 10 examples of imaginary faces and creatures on Mars. The inspiration to write about the topic came from a series of recent “art” images taken with the THEMIS camera on board the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. The probe orbits Mars every 2 hours and carries three science instruments; the camera combines images shot in 5 wavelengths or colors of visual light and 9 in the infrared or heat-emitting part of the spectrum. Others were snapped by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. All are NASA images, and I’ve taken the liberty to colorize several of the black and whites to approximate the appearance of the color images.

Enjoy!

 

1. My Happy Martian

Those Martians obviously have a sense of humor. This 2-mile-wide (3 km) unnamed crater was photographed in 2008 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Martians obviously have a sense of humor. This 2-mile-wide (3 km) unnamed crater was photographed in 2008 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

2. That Buzzing Sound

This crater chain with its wispy "wings" of impact debris resembles a wasp. The feature was most likely created when a meteorite coming it at a very low angle broke into pieces just before impact.
This crater chain with its wispy “wings” of impact debris resembles a wasp. The feature was most likely created when a meteorite arriving it at a very low angle broke into pieces just before impact.

3. The Mammoth Still Lives

Lava flows in Mars' Elysium Planitia region have left a rather good likeness of a woolly mammoth or elephant. The region is known for some of the planet's youngest lavas - this one may formed in the past 100 million years.
Lava flows in Mars’ Elysium Planitia region have left a rather good likeness of a woolly mammoth or elephant. The region is known for some of the planet’s youngest lavas – this one may have formed as recently as the past 100 million years.

4. Have A Heart (or two)

I love these two little hearts. The one on the left is a mesa top outlined by frost about the size of a football stadium. On the right, a small impact crater near the tip of the heart blew away dark surface material exposing lighter soil beneath. Some of the material appears to have flowed downslope to create the heart.
I love these two little hearts. The one on the left is a mesa top outlined by frost about the size of a football stadium. On the right, a small impact crater near the tip of the heart blew away dark surface material exposing lighter soil beneath. Some of the material appears to have flowed downslope to create the heart.

5. Rare Sighting Of A Dust-Covered Hummingbird

5. Rare sighting of the dust-coated hummingbird
The head and long beak of a hummingbird is easy to imagine in this scene. I can’t say for sure how these features formed but wind and erosion no doubt played a part.

6. Hitchcockian Horror

A Martian bird of prey? Watch out, that beak looks sharp!
Martian bird of prey or just another wayward pigeon?

7. Get It In Gear

The eroded blankets of ejecta blasted out when these craters formed look like a series of interlocking gears.
The eroded blankets of ejecta blasted out when these craters formed look like a series of interlocking gears.

 8. Lone Wolf On The Martian Prairie

Dark sand dune deposits look eerily like a howling wolf.

9. Thumbs Up!

These dunes remind me of a Minnesota “Thank you” for jump starting your car on a cold winter morning.

10. To A “T”

Tectonic stretching of the Martian crust created this unusual right-angle fracture. I wonder how many other letters of the alphabet we might find on the Red Planet?
Tectonic stretching of the Martian crust created this unusual right-angle fracture. I wonder how many other letters of the alphabet we might find on the Red Planet?