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The ESA's View of Cydonia - the face on Mars

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Cydonia - the face on Mars

Cydonia - the face on Mars

ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), MOC (Malin Space Science Systems)
It all started in 1976, while NASA's Viking 1 spacecraft was orbiting Mars, snapping photos of possible landing sites for its sister ship Viking 2. Imagine the stir in mission control as watching controllers seemed to be watched in return, by what looked a lot like a giant face, two miles from end to end. Excitement was shortlived as scientists recognized another Martian mesa, common enough around Cydonia, only this one had unusual shadows that made it look like an Egyptian Pharaoh.

Still, seeing a possibility of stirring up some interest in a lackadaisical public, the folks in NASA public relations released the image along with the following caption:

"This picture is one of many taken in the northern latitudes of Mars by the Viking 1 Orbiter in search of a landing site for Viking 2.

"The picture shows eroded mesa-like landforms. The huge rock formation in the center, which resembles a human head, is formed by shadows giving the illusion of eyes, nose and mouth. The feature is 1.5 kilometers (one mile) across, with the sun angle at approximately 20 degrees. The speckled appearance of the image is due to bit errors, emphasized by enlargement of the photo. The picture was taken on July 25 from a range of 1873 kilometers (1162 miles). Viking 2 will arrive in Mars orbit next Saturday (August 7) with a landing scheduled for early September."

Even the most optimistic PR person could not have expected the response. The picture struck a chord with a lot of people, many of whom felt that NASA's explanation was too convenient. Just like those who believe that NASA faked the moon landing, some people felt NASA was involved in a cover-up. Even new images from the Mars Global Surveyor in 1998 did not help.

Recently, the European Space Agency's Mars Express has obtained images of the Cydonia region of Mars. The High Resolution Stereo Camera photos include some of the most spectacular views of the Red Planet ever.

After multiple attempts to image the Cydonia region from April 2004 until July 2006 were frustrated by altitude and atmospheric dust and haze, the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board Mars Express finally obtained, on 22 July, a series of images that show the famous 'face' on Mars in unprecedented detail.

"These images of the Cydonia region on Mars are truly spectacular," said Dr Agustin Chicarro, ESA Mars Express Project Scientist. "They not only provide a completely fresh and detailed view of an area famous to fans of space myths worldwide, but also provide an impressive close-up over an area of great interest for planetary geologists, and show once more the high capability of the Mars Express camera."

In addition to the "Face", an array of nearby structures has been interpreted by some space enthusiasts as artificial landscapes, such as potential pyramids and even a disintegrated city. The idea that the planet might have once been home to intelligent beings has since inspired the imagination of many Mars fans, and has been expressed in numerous, more-or-less serious, newspaper articles as well as in science-fiction literature and on many Web pages.

With these new images, the formal scientific interpretation remains the same: the face is a figment of human imagination in a heavily eroded surface.

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