Is there really a face on Mars?

By: Stephanie Watson  | 
The dim image captured by Voyager 1 launched many conspiracy theories.
The dim image captured by Voyager 1 launched many conspiracy theories. See more Mars pictures.
NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

We earthlings have always been fascinated with the idea of finding life on other planets, and we've been captivated particularly with the possibility that life exists on one of our closest celestial neighbors -- Mars. Books, television shows and movies have all arrived at their own interpretations of what Martians might look like, from H.G. Wells' tentacled, squidlike aliens in "The War of the Worlds," to Looney Tunes' Roman helmet- and skirt-wearing M­arvin the Martian. In response to all of this postulating about life on Mars, scientists would explain that the atmosphere on the red planet couldn't support life as we know it.

Then in 1976, NASA's Viking 1 spacecraft was scouting out a potential Mars landing site for its sister spacecraft, Viking 2, when it came across something unexpected. While the craft was snapping pictures of a region of the planet called Cydonia, Viking 1 captured what looked like an enormous human face staring up at it. The "face" measured nearly two miles across and had what looked like deep-set eyes and a clearly delineated nose and mouth.



The tabloids, television shows and movie studios were quick to jump on the image, calling it real evidence of life on Mars. Writer and conspiracy theorist Richard Hoagland was one of the biggest proponents of the face on Mars idea. He claimed the face was an artifact of an ancient alien city, built by an intelligent Martian race.

Despite the apparent clarity of the face, NASA was quick to explain away the image as nothing more than an optical illusion. Shadows caused by the angle of the sun were merely creating the illusion of eyes, a nose and mouth across a natural formation, according to scientists.

True believers were equally quick to fire back: NASA was trying to cover up the evidence of life on Mars. It was a conspiracy. Find out the truth behind the face on the next page.


New Images of the Face on Mars

The Martian mesa.
Later high-resolution images proved that the face was simply what NASA scientists had long suspected: a mesa.
NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

Though scientists didn't believe the image captured of Mars back in the 1970s showed a real face, they did want to get a better look at it. Once photographic imaging techniques had improved, they went in for a closer shot. In April 1998, the Mars Orbiter captured a picture 10 times sharper than the original photos. In these more detailed pictures, what had appeared to be eyes, nose and a mouth vanished into nothing more than what scientists had originally surmised -- a natural rock formation.

However, those who were convinced that this was a real image of a face were not appeased. Richard Hoagland claimed the image had been intentionally enhanced so much that the face disintegrated. So in 2001, the Mars Surveyor returned to take even higher resolution photos. By shooting the formation from different angles, it was able to put together a 3-D image. When NASA scientists analyzed the structure's height and dimensions, they found that it actually resembled a rock formation here on Earth -- the flat-topped mesa commonly found throughout the Southwest.


Though the photographs seemed to negate the idea of a face on Mars, they were nonetheless fascinating to geologists. Scientists say the formations may have sat on the edges of what was once a Martian ocean. They could have been formed by glaciers sliding slowly across the surface of the red planet. Or they could have been the result of wind and water erosion, just as rocks have been shaped here on Earth.

Martian enthusiasts may never give up on the idea of life on Mars, but s­cientists undoubtedly still have much more to learn about the red planet.

To learn more about other Martian mysteries and space conspiracies, investigate the links on the next page.



Frequently Answered Questions

What is the Face on Mars called?
The Face on Mars is called Cydonia Mensae.

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More Great Links

  • ESA. "Cydonia -- the Face on Mars." September 21, 2006.
  • Malin Space Science Systems. "Mars Global Surveyor. Mars Orbiter Camera." May 24, 2001.
  • NASA. "Caption of JPL Viking Press Release P-17384." July 31, 1976.
  • NASA. "Unmasking the Face on Mars." May 24, 2001.
  • Plait, Phil. "The Face on Mars." Sky & Telescope. February 2007, pg. 28.
  • ­Wolf, Buck. "Hungry for Miracles? Try Jesus on a Fish Stick." ABC News. November 30, 2004.