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“Though intelligent or semi-intelligent life conceivably exists elsewhere in our solar system, if intelligent extra-terrestrial life is discovered in the next twenty years, it will very probably be by radio telescope from other solar systems. Evidence of its existence might also be found in artifacts left on the moon or other planets.”

The Brookings Institution Final Report, 1961

This case highlights the issues within the scientific field called the Search for Extraterrestrial Artefacts (SETA) and addresses the question of how you would measure artificiality. This is applicable not only to candidate SETA objects on the surface of a natural object (i.e. the Face on Mars), but also to the search for candidate artefacts in the electromagnetic spectrum (the methodology of SETI) and even the search for informatic artefacts within the DNA of organisms on Earth.

“Tricks of light and shadow”

It was NASA’s Viking mission project scientist Dr Gerry Soffen who, back in July 1976, announced that the space probe Viking Orbiter 1 had imaged a hill that looked like a human face in the region of Cydonia on Mars. Soffen however revealed that this “was just a trick of light and shadow”, because when they returned several hours later, it had all gone away.

“Gerry Soffen was very open, very careful, engaging project scientist who typified the spirit around Viking, which was a multidisciplinary, open, American approach to probing the unknown… So when he said there was nothing there – that it was a trick of light and shadow – his credibility was overwhelming and certainly dissuaded anyone from doing any hindsight checking. We believed him”

Richard C. Hoagland


Vincent DiPietro first saw the image on the face in a magazine article in 1977 and took it to be a joke. However, two years later he came across the same image, this time in the photographic archives of National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC) at Goddard Space Flight Center outside of Washington DC.

“There before me in black and white was the same serene image of a human-like face against the background of the Martian land surface. The title was certainly not misleading; it simply said ‘HEAD’…

“At this point I knew the object was not a hoax or it would not have been so boldly displayed in the NASA archives. I felt relieved and inquisitive; relieved that NASA had noted the picture and would presumably have verified it, and inquisitive to want to know more. But there was nothing more.”

Vincent DiPietro

After realising that no one else at NASA had taken notice of the image Vincent and his colleague Gregory Molenaar attempted to enhance the image quality. They applied a technique they had developed for enhancing and enlarging satellite images of the Earth.

Starburst Pixel Interleaving Technique (SPIT) increased the spatial resolution of images by subdividing each pixel into a 3 x 3 square. While this increased the visual quality of the image of frame 35A72 showing the ‘face’ they needed a second image to verify what they saw was real.

In the press conference in 1976 Gerry Soffen had stated that another picture taken several hours later had shown the object to be only an ordinary Mesa. However, DiPietro and Molenaar realised that this could not possibly have been true. The Viking Orbiters were in near synchronous 24-hour orbits. 12 hours after Viking 1 took the infamous image 35A72 from an altitude of 1500 km, the orbiter was at its farthest point from Mars at an altitude of 33,000 km. Contrary to Gerry Soffens words, ‘several hours’ later – Viking Orbiter 1 was thousands of miles from Cydonia and not able to reimage the object that Soffen had said looked like a face.

Not surprisingly when DiPietro and Molenaar looked through the archives for pictures taken a few hours later they found nothing.


The second image taken of the Cydonia region was 35 days later. Image 70A13 was taken at a different sun angle and still showed a face. This was not a simple trick of light and shadow.

With the sun approximately 17° higher in the Martian sky it revealed more of the right-hand side of the face showing evidence of an eye in what was in shadow in the earlier image. They then discovered a 5-sided pyramidal object 10 miles from the face which became known as the “D&M Pyramid”.

They presented these findings at the Annual Convention of the American Astronomical Society in College Park, Maryland in June 1980.

The City of the Edge of Forever

“I realized that I was looking at something that was either a complete waste of time, or the most important discovery of the twentieth century if not of our entire existence on Earth”

Richard C Hoagland.

Richard C Hoagland met with DiPietro and Molenaar at The Case for Mars conference in Boulder, Colorado in 1981. Hoagland began to see what DiPietro and Molenaar had done as a piece of a larger puzzle. He noticed that a small group of hills to the west of the face appeared pyramidal and he began his analysis of what he termed “The City”.

Adding to the investigation of the artificiality of the landforms, Hoagland surmised that celestial alignments had a part to play much like with terrestrial civilizations.

Independent Mars Investigation Team

The Independent Mars Investigation Team was put together by Hoagland in 1983 bringing together experts in the fields of image analysis, geology and anthropology together to study the unusual surface feature on Mars.

They submitted work to The Case For Mars conference held in 1984 in a poster paper entitled “The Preliminary Findings of Independent Mars Investigation Team: New Thoughts on Unusual Surface Features”. The paper had very limited exposure and in general was well received.

NASA’s Scientists Respond

“What could you possibly do with these images that NASA hasn’t already done?”

Chris McKay (Case For Mars conference organiser) to Hoagland

“Most of us took fairly elementary looks at it.”

Dr Gerry Soffen

“I really haven’t been that interested; and I’m still not.”

Dr Gerry Soffen; when asked by a journalist about the Independent Teams report

“What they [the Independent Mars Investigation Team] are proposing is to use existing – and some novel – computer enhancement techniques on existing data. Now, this area, like all areas of Mars, has already been subject to state-of-the-art enhancement… And there’s nothing that comes out beyond what you’ve already seen… I’m not opposed to investigating. My view on the Face on Mars is my view on astrology. If someone can show that there is some validity to the claims, that’s useful. But since the vast preponderance of the evidence is that it’s nonsense, I don’t think that’s a good investment of resources”

Dr Carl Sagan

“The question is not whether you are right or wrong, sir. You are not even in the conversation.”

Dr Carl Sagan to Dr John Brandenberg regarding Brandenberg’s work with the Independent Mars Investigation Team on Cydonia

Mark Carlotto’s Analysis

Mark J Carlotto became involved with the Mars Team in 1985 after reading an article in a newspaper. At the time he was developing image analysis techniques for military and civilian applications including a technique to help identify non-natural features on natural terrain. The principal was based on the premise that natural forms are fractal in nature whereas synthetic forms are typically non-fractal – a fractal is a structure that is self‐similar – such as a leaf, a tree which branches forming similar recognisable patterns over different scales.

Measuring Artificiality

Natural terrains images are generally fractal in nature. Man-made terrain images are generally non-fractal in nature; they are not self-similar.

Carlotto’s colleague, Michael Stein, had developed a fractal technique for detecting man-made objects such as military vehicles in overhead satellite imagery. Without modification Carlotto applied the technique to the Viking frame 35A72 and found that the Face was the least fractal object in the image.

The fractal analysis was extended to surrounding frames and the face was the least fractal object over an area of 15,000 km2. Viking frame 72A13 corroborated these results. Several other objects within “The City” were also highly non-fractal. The results were published in a paper in the Journal of the Interplanetary Society in 1990: “A Method of Searching for Artificial Objects on Planetary Surfaces”.

The D&M Pyramid & Geomorphology

Erol Torun, a cartographer at the Defence Mapping Agency, joined DiPietro and Molenaar in studying the “D&M Pyramid”. Torun who was a trained geologist considered five natural explanations for the strange geomorphology of the object.

  • Fluvial deposition: no evidence running water 1km deep
  • Erosion: four or five sided ventifact (or Yardangs) appear to be non-existent Earth or Mars
  • Mass Wasting: uncharacteristic of wasting of loose material
  • Volcano: no significant volcanic activity in Cydonia Mensae region and feature has no vent at its apex
  • Large crystal growth: no precedent for crystal growth 1km high

Tetrahedral Geometry

Hoagland and Torun became interested in the mathematical relationships. Using a geometric reconstruction of the shape of the D&M Pyramid, Torun found that the internal angles between base and edges, and the trigonometric functions of these angles could be expressed in terms of the mathematical constants:

  • π  (3.14159…) ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter
  • e  (2.71828…) the base of natural logarithms
  • √2, √3, √5 ; the square roots of 2, 3 and 5

Toruns model of the Pyramid was found by Keith Morgan to be the “only pentagonal figure having two front angles of 60º that can represent the five constants √2,√3,√5, e and π redundantly across angle ratios, radian measure, and trigonometric functions.”

Also found that ratio of lengths of two of its internal dimensions was close to the Golden Ratio:

  • (1 + √5)/2 = 1.61803

The Golden Ratio shows up repeatedly in growth patterns in nature and fascinates mathematicians and artists alike. It was pointed out to Hoagland that the latitude of the D&M Pyramid (40.868°N) is very close to the arc tangent of e/π.

All this coincidence suggested to Hoagland and Torun that, more than just being indicative of intelligent design, it suggested communication of a message in the spirit of Pythagoreans and Gauss – i.e. a mathematical message.

Some planetary scientists such as Michael Malin were highly critical of Hoagland and Torun due to the dependency of the model on the accuracy of the measurements of the D&M Pyramid. Torun’s model is based on Viking imagery and some edges and angles do not correspond well with the object. This would of course be expected if the object has be subject to erosion by wind and weathering.

Testing for Random Geology

Horace Crater, Professor of Physics at the University of Tennessee Space Institute published a paper “Mound Configurations on the Martian Cydonia Plain” in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 1999, Vol. 3 No3 1999 in which he wrote:

“Investigation of the geometric relationships between these mounds takes the form of a test of what may be called the random geology hypothesis. The hypothesis presupposes that the distribution of the mounds… however orderly they may seem, is consistent with the action of random geological forces.

“Our question is: Does the random geology hypothesis succeed or fail in the case of the mound configuration at Cydonia?”

Rather than select the mounds to analyse himself he developed a software program to search for mounds. At low (5%) precision nothing significant showed up. However, at a higher precision (0.2%) he found 19 triangles (modelled mounds) at 19.5° against a background with an average of 5.7 triangles. Crater determined that the statistical significance was very high with the chance of the mounds being randomly positioned being 1/65000.

“Our studies of numerous Viking images shows that mounds of this type in relatively isolated configurations are far from ubiquitous…

“The existence of this radical statistical anomaly in the distribution of mound formations in this area of Mars indicates in our opinion a need for continued high-priority targeting of the area for active investigation and determination of the origin and nature of the mounds.”

Professor Horace Crater

Crater was told by an archaeologist that if this was a discovery on Earth the data was sufficient for archaeologists to be extremely interested in the site and begin investigations … … but publicly at least NASA remained uninterested.

“Extraordinary claims required extraordinary evidence”

Carl Sagan denouncing the claims of potential artificiality on Cydonia, propounded that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So what is “extra-ordinary evidence”? Would a large amount of evidence suffice? Perhaps extremely powerful evidence is what Sagan believes is required?

The problem is that these definitions like the parent phases are ambiguous and philosophically meaningless. The use of this sort of language is quite simply a ruse to add weight to an argument. Carl Sagan would have been well aware that his argument was a fallacy.

The McDaniel Investigation

In 1993, seventeen years after the NASA’s Viking Orbiter took the controversial imaging, another NASA spacecraft approached Mars. Political pressure was applied to NASA via congress in order to set mission priorities to include reimaging Cydonia. Professor of Stanley McDaniel published an analysis of the independent work and of NASA’s own analysis.

“However, during the seventeen years since the controversial landforms were discovered, NASA has maintained steadfastly that there is ‘no credible evidence’ that any of the landforms may be artificial. A close look at NASA’s arguments reveal that NASA’s ‘evaluation’ has consisted largely of initial impressions from unenhanced photographs, heavily weighted by faulty reasoning.

“NASA has failed to apply any special method of analysis; it has relied upon flawed reports; it has failed to attempt verification of the enhancements and measurements made by others; and it has focused exclusively on inappropriate methodology which ignores the importance of context.

“There remains no scientific basis for NASA’s position regarding the landforms.”

“… my original naive view – that all NASA scientists were sincerely interested in the truth – was utterly shattered when I discovered the most blatant piece of disinformation I have ever seen: one written not by an obscure NASA Public Information employee, but by a prestigeous member of the 1976 Viking Lander Imaging Team, Dr. Carl Sagan. Dr. Sagan’s contribution to the subject could not be interpreted as mere scientific bungling; it’s author is too knowledgeable for that.”

“As my study of the work done by the independent investigators and NASA’s response to their research continued, I became aware not only of the relatively high quality of the independent research, but also of glaring mistakes in the arguments used by NASA to reject this research.

“With each new NASA document I encountered, I became more and more appalled by the impossibly bad quality of the reasoning used. It grew more and more difficult to believe that educated scientists could engage in such faulty reasoning unless they were following some sort of hidden agenda aimed at suppressing the true nature of the data.”

“The concept of withholding information on a possible extra-terrestrial discovery conflicts with an understood NASA policy to the effect that information on a verified discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence should be shared promptly with all humanity. A report on the cultural aspects of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) is presently being prepared for publication by the NASA Ames Research Center. In this report, the position that NASA would not withhold such data from the public is said to be strongly supported.

“NASA’s actual behavior in the specific case of the Martian objects, however, does not appear to be consistent with this policy. NASA has regularly distributed documents containing false or misleading statements about its evaluation of the Face to members of Congress and to the public.

“The absence of legitimate scientific evaluation of the landforms by NASA, its ignoring of the relevant research, its apparently exaggerated warnings that such photographs would be extremely difficult to obtain, the possible sequestering of the data under the aegis of “private contract”, and the ambiguous language used by NASA officials to generate a sense of complacency around the issue all support the suspicion of a motivation contrary to the stated policy.”

Professor Stanley McDaniel

Three days after Professor Stanley McDaniel damming critique of NASA was published, and three days before NASA’s spacecraft “Mars Observer” was due to enter orbit around Mars… … contact with the spacecraft was lost. It would later be disclosed that the telemetry was accidentally disconnected.

Mars Global Surveyor

By the time of the 1998 Mars Global Surveyor mission 22 years had passed since NASA had visited Mars. With the ‘loss’ of Mars Observer independent researchers had fought a political battle to get Cydonia re-imaged by the next mission. Despite claims by Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems (NASA contractor which controls the cameras) that imaging the target would be extremely difficult, NASA actually stepped in ordered and order him to take images of the controversial Cydonia region.

The words of Professor Stanley McDaniel in the week before Surveyor imaged Cydonia in April 1998:

“It’s my personal view that the problematic way NASA has treated this subject in the past is the result of certain unfortunate moves made early on in the history of this debate, again because of premature conclusions and only cursory analysis of the data…

“We urge NASA scientists, as well as members of the public who may attempt analysis and interpretation of the data, to view the data objectively and with care, avoiding premature conclusions. The stakes are too high to allow bias or a desire to ‘be first’ to obscure the truth that may eventually emerge from the data provided by the Surveyor.”

Professor Stanley McDaniel

Epistemology: Thomas Van Flandern makes the scientific case

All Viking images were a posteriori (after the fact). No reliable conclusions can be drawn from data already known. However, the images did allow formulation of specific hypothesis for testing.

The competing models (hypotheses) were:

  1. The “Face” is an artificial structure built by an intelligent species (indigenous or visiting) and intended to depict the face of a member of a humanoid-like species, whether their own, ours, or some other.
  2. The “Face” is of natural origin, resembling a humanoid face entirely by accidental chance combined with our predilection to see familiar patterns in otherwise non-ordered data.

The MGS images are all a priori (before the fact).

The Scientific Method attaches significance to the test results of predictions having a priori status. Disputing or ignoring the results of tests of a priori predictions, whichever way they go, is in itself a form of a posteriori reasoning. Posteriori (after the fact) reasoning is generally of questionable validity because it violates the controls against bias imposed by the scientific method.

A Priori Predictions for “the Face”

The artificiality hypothesis predictions:

  • an image intended to portray a humanoid face should have more than the primary facial features (eyes, nose, mouth) seen in the Viking images;
  • at higher resolution, we ought to see secondary facial features such as eyebrows, pupils, nostrils, and lips, for which the resolution of the original Viking images was insufficient;
  • the presence of such features in the MGS images would be significant new indicators of artificiality. Their existence by chance is highly improbable. And the prediction of their existence by the artificiality hypothesis is completely a priori.

The natural-origin hypothesis predictions:

  • the “Face” will look more fractal (e.g., more natural) at higher resolution;
  • any feature that resembled secondary facial features could do so only by chance, and would be expected to have poor correspondence with the expected size, shape, location, and orientation of real secondary facial features;
  • any such chance feature might also be expected to be part of a background containing many similar chance features

The a priori predictions indeed show secondary facial features that could not be seen in the Viking imagery of the Face. Features did indeed appear to resemble eye brows, nostrils and lips in shape, size and positions expected for a hominid face. Seen as a whole it certainly did not appear to look more fractal – i.e. more natural.

The MGS image was taken on April 6th 1998 while Cydonia was in late winter. The sun was higher in the sky than in the Viking images and as a result the face was lit from underneath – lighting that can be likened to shining a torch under your chin.

Haze, cloud and dust are not uncommon in the atmosphere in that time of year; a day earlier an attempt was made to photograph Utopia Planitia, the location of one of the Viking landers – however, the region was heavily overcast. By a stroke of luck on April 6th Cydonia was visible from orbit in a break in the clouds. The image provided by MGS shows the face to be illuminated by mostly ambient light scattered from the hazy atmosphere.

The image of the Face presented by NASA to the press (left) did not show a clear image of a face. This is the “Contrast enhanced” image processed rendering created by Timothy Parker of JPL’s Mission Image Processing Laboratory appeared to show only a flat terrain. The over-zealous image processing had even made a crater that exists to the south west look like flat structure looking unlike a real crater. Both the correctly processed version (centre) and orthographically rectified version (right) of MGS MOC-22003 created by Mark Kelly clearly show that the a priori predictions for artificiality had been met. These features of nostrils, eye brows and lips are visible in the Timothy Parker version however it is not easy to discern them – which of course is why the press simply dealt with the issue as a joke when presented with the Timothy Parker version.

Perhaps presenting the real data to the press would too clearly indicate, not only the possibility of artificial constructs on the surface of Mars was a real possibility, but it would also show the gross errors made by NASA in both its own reasoning and overt disinterest in the question of artificiality of objects of the surface of another planet.

Of course it is entirely possible that NASA’s position did not come out of ignorance and bad scientific reasoning. Perhaps research had been underway at NASA or elsewhere that deemed such a discovery too culturally devastating or simply politically disadvantageous to disclosure to the United States citizens, who fund the program, and to the rest of the world who watched on NASA’s every move.

By Anthony Beckett B.Sc. (hons) M.Sc.


  1. Recommended reading: The Cydonia Controversy, Mark J Carlotto,, 2008

© Anthony Beckett 2013

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