Astronomy Cast Ep. 463: Pareidolia and the Moon

The man in the moon, the pyramids on Mars. Every cloud, ever. Humans have a tendency to pattern match when they’re looking around the Universe – it’s called pareidolia. What causes this behavior, and how can we use this to debunk some hilarious conspiracy theories?

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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:

Faces of the Solar System

“Look, it has a tiny face on it!”

This sentiment was echoed ‘round the web recently, as an image of Pluto’s tiny moon Nix was released by the NASA New Horizons team. Sure, we’ve all been there. Lay back in a field on a lazy July summer’s day, and soon, you’ll see faces of all sorts in the puffy stratocumulus clouds holding the promise of afternoon showers.

Pluto's moon Nix as imaged by New Horizons from 590,000 kilometers distant. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Pluto’s moon Nix as imaged by New Horizons from 590,000 kilometers distant. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

This predilection is so hard-wired into our brains, that often our facial recognition software sees faces where there are none. Certainly, seeing faces is a worthy survival strategy; not only is this aspect of cognition handy in recognizing the friendlies of our own tribe, but it’s also useful in the reading of facial expressions by giving us cues of the myriad ‘tells’ in the social poker game of life.

And yes, there’s a term for the illusion of seeing faces in the visual static: pareidolia. We deal lots with pareidolia in astronomy and skeptical circles. As NASA images of brave new worlds are released, an army of basement bloggers are pouring over them, seeing miniature bigfoots, flowers, and yes, lots of humanoid figures and faces. Two craters and the gash of a trench for a mouth will do.

Now that new images of Pluto and its entourage of moons are pouring in, neural circuits ‘cross the web are misfiring, seeing faces, half-buried alien skeletons and artifacts strewn across Pluto and Charon. Of course, most of these claims are simply hilarious and easily dismissed… no one, for example, thinks the Earth’s Moon is an artificial construct, though its distorted nearside visage has been gazing upon the drama of humanity for millions of years.

Do you see the 'Man in the Moon?' Image credit: Dave Dickinson
Do you see the ‘Man in the Moon?’ Image credit: Dave Dickinson

The psychology of seeing faces is such that a whole region of the occipital lobe of the brain known as the fusiform face area is dedicated to facial recognition. We each have a unique set of neurons that fire in patterns to recognize the faces of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and other celebs (thanks, internet).

Damage this area at the base of the brain or mess with its circuitry, and a condition known as prosopagnosia, or face blindness can occur. Author Oliver Sacks and actor Brad Pitt are just a few famous personalities who suffer from this affliction.

The 'Snowman of Vesta,' as imaged by NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The ‘Snowman of Vesta,’ as imaged by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Conversely, ‘super-recognizers’ at the other end of the spectrum have a keen sense for facial identification that verges on a super-power. True story: my wife has just such a gift, and can immediately spot second-string actors and actresses in modern movies from flicks and television shows decades old.

It would be interesting to know if there’s a correlation between face blindness, super-recognition and seeing faces in the shadows and contrast on distant worlds… to our knowledge, no such study has been conducted. Do super-recognizers see faces in the shadowy ridges and craters of the solar system more or less than everyone else?

A well-known example was the infamous ‘Face on Mars.’ Imaged by the Viking 1 orbiter in 1976, this half in shadow image looked like a human face peering back up at us from the surface of the Red Planet from the Cydonia region.

Image credit: The 'Face on Mars': HiRISE vs Viking 1 (inset): Image credit: NASA/JPL
Image credit: The ‘Face on Mars’: HiRISE vs Viking 1 (inset): Image credit: NASA/JPL

But when is a face not a face?

Now, it’s not an entirely far-fetched idea that an alien entity visiting the solar system would place something (think the monolith on the Moon from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) for us to find. The idea is simple: place such an artifact so that it not only sticks out like a sore thumb, but also so it isn’t noticed until we become a space-faring society. Such a serious claim would, however, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, demand serious and rigorous evidence.

But instead of ‘Big NASA’ moving to cover up the ‘face,’ they did indeed re-image the region with both the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Global Surveyor at a much higher resolution. Though the 1.5 kilometer feature is still intriguing from a geological perspective… it’s now highly un-facelike in appearance.

A 'face' or... more fun with 'scifi spacecraft pareidolia. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Paramount Pictures
A ‘face’ or… more fun with ‘scifi spacecraft pareidolia.’ Image credit: NASA/JPL/Paramount Pictures

Of course, it won’t stop the deniers from claiming it was all a big cover-up… but if that were the case, why release such images and make them freely available online? We’ve worked in the military before, and can attest that NASA is actually the most transparent of government agencies.

We also know the click bait claims of all sorts of alleged sightings will continue to crop up across the web, with cries of ‘Wake up, Sheeople!’ (usually in all caps) as a brave band of science-writing volunteers continue to smack down astro-pareidolia on a pro bono basis in battle of darkness and light which will probably never end.

What examples of astro-pareidolia have you come across in your exploits?

Humanoid Shape Spotted on Mercury

You’ve all heard of the “face on Mars” and the “man in the Moon” — well I guess this would be the “man on Mercury!” And I feel like I’ve seen him somewhere before…

"Oh, they've encased him in carbonite. He should be quite well protected."
“Oh, they’ve encased him in carbonite. He should be quite well protected.”

In yet another instance of the phenomenon known as pareidolia, it’s hard not to see the vaguely human shape in this image of Mercury’s surface, acquired by the MESSENGER spacecraft in July 2011. But what looks like a person with upraised arms (resembling, the team suggests, a certain carbonite-encased space smuggler) is really an ancient block of surface crust that juts from the floor of Mercury’s vast Caloris basin — likely the remnants of harder material predating the basin-forming impact 3.9 billion years ago. The low angle of sunlight from the west helps to highlight the surface shapes.

The image above shows an area 96 km (59.7 mi.) across.

If Jabba really wanted to keep his favorite wall decoration safe, perhaps he should have put it on Mercury…

Read more on the MESSENGER site here.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

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?

 

Face-to-Face With Some Shattered Lunar Boulders

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Breaking up may be hard to do, but these two lunar boulders seem to have succeeded extremely well! Imaged by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) in October of 2009, this crumbled couple was recently identified by Moon Zoo team member Dr. Anthony Cook and brought to the attention of the project’s forum moderator.

The tracks left in the regolith — lunar soil — behind the boulders tell of their past rolling journeys down the slope of the elongated Schiller crater, in which they reside. Rolling boulders have been spotted before on the Moon, but what made these two split apart? And…why does that one on the lower right look so much like half a face?

Several things can cause lunar boulders to come loose and take the nearest downhill course. Meteorite impacts can shake the ground locally, giving the rocks enough of a nudge to set them on a roll. And moonquakes — the lunar version of earthquakes, as the name implies (although not due to tectonic plate shifts but rather to more mysterious internal lunar forces) — can also dislodge large boulders.

The low gravity on the Moon can make large rocks take a bounding path, evidenced by the dotted-line appearance of some of the trails.

Could all that bounding and bouncing have made the two boulders above shatter apart? Or was something else the cause of their crumbling?

Dr. Cook suggested that the boulders could have fractured before they began rolling, and then the added stress of their trip down the crater’s slope (uphill is to the right) made them break apart at the end of their trip… possibly due to further weathering and the extreme temperature variations of lunar days and nights.

Although a sound idea, Dr. Cook added, “I’m a bit puzzled though why the one on the top left has rock debris so far away from the centre. The boulder that looks like a skull rock on the bottom right has debris a lot closer to it, that could simply be explained by bits falling off as one would expect from the explanation above.”

This is one rock that's not happy about its breakup!

Another idea is that the boulders were struck by meteorites, but it seems extremely improbable that two would have been hit right next to each other. Still, not impossible, especially given the geologic time spans in play.

And as far as the “skull rock” boulder is concerned… that’s a little something called pareidolia, the tendency for our brains to interpret random shapes as something particularly significant. In this case it’s a human face, one of the most popular forms of pareidolia (perhaps best known by the famous “Face on Mars”, which, as we all now know, has been since shown to be just another Martian mesa.)

It does look like a face though, and not a particularly happy one!

Find out more about rolling boulders and Schiller crater on the LROC site hosted by Arizona State University here, and take a look at the full image scan of the region yourself… you may find more of these broken-up rolling rocks!

LROC WAC global 100-meter mosaic image of the 180-km long, 70-km wide Schiller crater. Overlaid onto a laser altimetry elevation model. (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

No Humanoid on Mars, Just Rocks

Okay, once and for all, let’s make this clear. In the words of our esteemed Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, “repeat after me:” A humanoid was not photographed on the surface of Mars. And NASA is not covering up this photo in the name of national security. Furthermore, human missions to Mars have not been cancelled because of this photo. These outrageous notions keep popping up in the media. The photograph, which was taken by Spirit, one of the Mars Exploration Rovers, is just another example of pareidolia, our ability to see patterns in random shapes.

As happens frequently, people tend to see faces or human forms in things like clouds, wood grain, and pancakes. This is only an optical illusion. If you need proof of this, for those of you in the US, look at one of the state-themed quarters from New Hampshire. There you can see the Man in the Mountain, a case of pareidolia that became an historic site (which has since crumbled.)

The photo shown here is the very large panoramic image from which a teeny, tiny rock formation was found that looks kind of human-like. Someone had to be looking really close to see it, as the rock formation is only about 6 centimeters high, and in the image you can also see a hill that’s over 8 kilometers (5 miles) away.

If you have any doubts in your mind that this is nothing more than just a very small, unusual rock formation, please, please, please see Emily Lakdawalla’s thorough explanation of the image at the Planetary Society’s website, which includes 3-D pictures that really make it clear this is not a humanoid. It’s a rock with a funny shape. And Phil the Bad Astronomer has more info on it as well here and here.

And, okay, here’s the really zoomed in image crop that has caused such a hubbub. Just remember how small this rock really is.
tiny detail from a panorama taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit on sol 1,366-1,369 (November 6-9, 2007) of its position on the eastern edge of Home Plate. Credit: NASA / JPL / Cornell