Life on Mars: from microbes to monuments

David Pratt

December 2011


Lunar or terrestrial?
Water on Mars
The search for life
The Face on Mars
The Cydonia complex
Other possible anomalies


Mars – named after the Roman god of war – lies 1.5 times further from the sun than the earth does. Its year is about 1.9 times as long as an earth year, while a day is only 37 minutes longer than on earth. With a radius just under half of earth’s and a lower mean density, Mars’ surface gravity is about 38% of that on earth. Mars only has a weak magnetic field and a very thin atmosphere that retains very little heat; atmospheric pressure on its surface is less than 1% of that on earth. The martian atmosphere consists of 95% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen and only 0.13% oxygen (on earth the corresponding figures are 0.04%, 78% and 21% respectively). The surface temperature ranges from -140ºC to over +20ºC, with an average of -63ºC. Mars has seasons as it is tilted on its axis, by 25.19º compared to earth’s 23.44º.

Earth and Mars.

Mars is a terrestrial, rocky planet. The southern highlands in particular are heavily cratered and resemble the surface of the moon, but there are also volcanoes, valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps like those on earth. The martian soil contains elements such as magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride – nutrients necessary for plant growth on earth. Mars is officially regarded as barren of life (except perhaps for microbial life in the soil) and more or less dead geologically. But there has been tremendous geological activity in the past: Mars is home to the highest mountain in the solar system, Olympus Mons, 550 km wide and 27 km high (3 times higher than Mount Everest), located in the Tharsis upland, and the largest canyon system, Valles Marineris, 4000 km long and up to 7 km deep (nearly 10 times longer and 4 times deeper than the Grand Canyon).

Valles Marineris extends across one-fifth of the circumference of Mars.

Mainstream scientists divide the history of Mars into three geological epochs, whose dating is very uncertain (
Noachian, 4.5 to 3.8-3.5 billion years ago: heavy meteorite bombardment, massive floods of volcanic lava, warm and wet climate; the heavily cratered surfaces in the southern highlands are thought to date from this period.
Hesperian, 3.8-3.5 to 3.5-1.8 billion years ago: slower rate of meteorite bombardment, formation of extensive lava plains, huge amounts of flowing water, especially in the north, where there may have been an ocean.
Amazonian, 3.5-1.8 billion years ago to the present: the climate became cold and dry.

The orthodox view is that it is over a billion years since Mars last saw major geological activity and had large quantities of liquid water on its surface. John Brandenburg and several other scientists hold an alternative view: that the cold, dry, Amazonian period did not begin until half a billion years ago (Brandenburg, 2011, 172, 155-9; Brandenburg et al., 1991). Brandenburg speculates that the huge impact that is believed to have formed that vast Lyot (pronounced: Leo) basin, 200 km in diameter, precipitated a flash-freezing event and caused Mars to swallow its ocean and atmosphere.

Signs of more recent geological activity include lava flows in the Athabasca Valles an estimated 200 million years ago, and volcanic intrusions and water flows in the Cerberus Fossae grabens less than 20 million years ago ( Some scientists have interpreted images taken during the Mariner 9 and Viking missions in the 1970s as showing possible evidence for contemporary volcanic activity or outgassing events (DiGregorio, 1997, 211-5, 268).

43,000 craters with a diameter of 5 km or greater have been found on Mars; they are virtually all assumed to be impact craters, most of them over 3 billion years old. There are, however, strong arguments that many craters on the moon and earth are the result of internal degassing events, and the same may apply to Mars (see Storetvedt, 1997, 378-87; 2011). Proponents of the ‘electric universe’ theory argue that craters could also be caused by atmospheric electric discharges (,; Mars’ incredibly intensive dust storms and Mt Everest-sized dust devils are also powered by electrical activity (, Another noteworthy observation is that the lack of extensive erosion of craters, channels and other geological features on Mars suggests that they could be a lot younger than currently thought (Corliss, 1985, 214-5, 218).

From a theosophical perspective, Mars is currently in a state of ‘obscuration’ or dormancy between its third and fourth rounds of evolutionary activity; most of its lifeforms are no longer present and Mars will remain in a state of ‘hibernation’ for perhaps millions of years (see Mars: our sleeping neighbour). This article outlines the main scientific discoveries about Mars and the controversy surrounding possible artefacts on Mars.

Lunar or terrestrial?

In 1610, using a primitive telescope, Galileo was barely able to resolve Mars as a disc. As telescopes improved, surface markings started to become visible. In 1659 Christiaan Huygens discovered Syrtis Major, a dark feature that was originally thought to be a plain, but is now regarded as a low-relief shield volcano made of basaltic rock. In 1672 he made a drawing showing the south polar cap. By the end of the 17th century there was a widespread belief in the plurality of worlds (i.e. planets and suns), and planets were generally believed to be inhabited. The moon, on the other hand, with its barren craters and lack of clouds, was thought to be airless and dead.

From the early 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century, Mars was considered to be much like the earth. William Herschel discovered that Mars is tilted on its axis and therefore has seasons. He observed changes in the polar caps that he thought might be caused by the seasonal melting of snow and ice. In the 19th century, using improved telescopes, astronomers began to notice changes in the tones and colours of the martian surface. Some thought the dark areas were wet soil, others thought they were seas. Since parts of the surface were seen to darken in a wave-like movement as the southern polar cap shrank, some scientists speculated that this might be caused by vegetation.


Giovanni Schiaparelli of Italy believed that the dark areas on Mars were seas. In 1877, when Mars passed close to earth, he observed a network of linear features, which he called ‘canali’, meaning natural channels or rivers, but the term was mistranslated as ‘canals’. In the US, Percival Lowell believed that the channels were indeed canals – artificial waterways constructed by an advanced race of Martians to save their dying planet by distributing water from the polar caps. French astronomer Camille Flammarion supported the idea that Mars might be inhabited by intelligent beings.

Map of Mars by Schiaparelli. (

Maps of martian canals by Lowell. (

Observations with more powerful telescopes led other astronomers to doubt the reality of the canals; they were increasingly attributed to the eye’s tendency to interpret poorly resolved patterns of dots as linear features. Also, spectroscopic measurements showed Mars to be colder, drier and less habitable than expected. However, the popular consensus was still that Mars was home to intelligent beings – as reflected in H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds, published in 1898. In 1909, using an 840 mm telescope, Flammarion observed irregular patterns, but no long, straight ‘canali’. After Lowell’s death in 1916, a scientific consensus developed against the canal hypothesis. The ‘canal’ named Agathadaemon did however turn out to be a real feature; it is now known as Valles Marineris.

In 1877, Asaph Hall discovered two moons orbiting Mars, and named them Phobos (‘fear’) and Deimos (‘terror’), the two mythological children of the war god Mars. Curiously, they had been predicted 150 years earlier by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels; his predicted orbital periods were correct to within 30%.

Mariner and Viking

The first probe to fly past Mars and return data was Mariner 4 in July 1965. It flew over the planet’s dark southern regions at a distance of 9850 km, but instead of finding vegetation or even canals, it unexpectedly observed a moonlike landscape covered with craters and devoid of liquid water. Similar pictures were returned by Mariners 6 and 7, which passed within 3430 km of the planet in summer 1969. The martian atmosphere was found to be even thinner than expected, equivalent to the earth’s atmosphere at 30 km altitude. As a result, Mars was abruptly moved from the terrestrial category of planets to the lunar category.

Mariner 9 reached Mars in November 1971 and, after waiting for a giant dust storm to subside, it flew over both hemispheres in a polar orbit and produced new surprises. It discovered the north-south dichotomy of Mars: while the southern hemisphere consists of heavily cratered highlands, the northern hemisphere is dominated by smooth plains at a much lower average elevation. It sent back pictures of enormous volcanoes, vast canyon systems, and extensive networks of dried-up channels and tributaries. Mars had clearly once had large quantities of liquid water flowing on its surface, and must therefore have had a thicker atmosphere as well.

In June and August 1976 two Viking spacecraft reached Mars, each consisting of an orbiter and a lander. As the orbiters mapped the surface and confirmed the findings of Mariner 9, the landers descended to the surface and performed a series of experiments to determine if microbial life existed in the soil. The results were ambiguous and inconclusive but NASA declared that there was no life on Mars. This controversy continues to this day (see below).

Water-cut valley network (42°S, 92°W), as seen by a Viking orbiter. (

Subsequent orbiter or lander missions include Mars Global Surveyor (1996-2006), Mars Pathfinder (1996-97), Mars Odyssey (2001-present), Mars Reconnaissance (2005-present), and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express (2003-present). NASA has also launched three rover missions: Spirit (2003-2010), Opportunity (2003-present), and Phoenix (2007-08). These various missions have provided further evidence for a warmer, wetter, more geologically active Mars, along with controversial evidence of life and even artificially shaped structures.

Colours of Mars

Mars is sometimes called the ‘red planet’ due to its reddish surface, which is caused by iron oxides (haematite or rust). The exact colours of Mars have, however, generated a lot of debate. The first Viking lander image to be released showed an Arizona-like landscape, with blue sky, brownish-red desert soil and gray rocks with bluish-green patches. Within hours, however, a ‘corrected’ version was released, showing a uniform orange-red sky and landscape. The NASA administrator ordered a technician to adjust the monitors at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to show the same red sky, even though the new settings made it look as though the American flag (painted on the landers) had purple stripes. He also ordered the head of the Viking imaging team to destroy the blue-sky negative created from the original digital data (DiGregorio, 1997, 139-45, 200-3;

Top: Early Viking 1 image of the surface of Mars. A thin layer of water-ice frost is visible on the ground. Bottom: The same image as ‘corrected’ by NASA.

Subsequent images of Mars from NASA spacecraft and the Hubble telescope showed evidence of significant Rayleigh scattering (the bluish limb around the planet). Rayleigh scattering should produce a blue sky, as on earth. This is what astronomers expected to find before Mars Pathfinder touched down in 1997. Instead, the official JPL lander image showed an extremely red and ‘dusty’ sky. Even through decent amateur telescopes, Mars appears more salmon-pink than bright red.

Mars Pathfinder view of the surface of Mars, showing debris from a huge flood, with NASA-approved skies.

In 2003 and 2004 the official colour images of the Spirit and Opportunity landing sites again had salmon-red skies and red rocks. One reason is the use of infrared (IR) filters on the colour imager. Imaging specialist Keith Laney, who is now employed by NASA, stresses the need for proper techniques and adjustments to correct for this ( By no stretch of the imagination should images made using IR filters be called ‘true colour’. NASA now calls technicolour red skies ‘approximate true colour’, though this, too, is misleading. Laney says:

While there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Mars is in fact a very ruddy color, at times it is very much yellowish brown, earth-toned, and bluish skied. The differing ruddiness of the images constructed from the proper color bands is directly dependent upon ambient lighting conditions such as time of day, dust and water cloudiness, distance and angle of surface being photographed to the sun and rovers, materials being photographed, or any combination of such.

Image taken by the Spirit rover, processed by Keith Laney. (

Water on Mars

The two polar caps on Mars consist primarily of water ice. Frozen carbon dioxide (‘dry ice’) accumulates as a thin layer about one metre thick on the north cap in the northern winter, while the south cap has a permanent dry-ice cover about eight metres thick. The dry ice forms by carbon dioxide condensing out of the air owing to the extreme winter cold. When the poles are again exposed to sunlight, the ice sublimates directly into vapour, creating fierce winds that sweep off the poles at up to 400 km/hour. The winds carry large amounts of dust and water vapour, giving rise to earth-like frost, large cirrus clouds, and dust storms that can engulf the planet for months.

Permafrost is globally widespread and its thickness is estimated to range from 1 to 2 km in the equatorial zone to 6 km in the polar areas. Radar data have shown large quantities of water ice at mid-latitudes as well as at the poles. Water ice has also been observed in shadowed portions of craters. In 2007, the Spirit rover sampled chemical compounds containing water molecules. In 2008, the Phoenix lander directly sampled water ice in shallow martian polar soils. There is thought to be far more water deeper beneath the surface.

Although daytime temperatures can melt ice, most scientists believe that the low atmospheric pressure prevents liquid water from existing on the surface except at the lowest elevations for short periods. Like dry ice, water ice on Mars that is heated by the sun usually sublimates directly into vapour. However, when temperature rises above 0ºC and atmospheric pressure exceeds 6.1 millibars (conditions known as the triple point of water), ice, liquid water and water vapour can coexist, and melting ice becomes liquid water. Since temperatures on Mars can reach 37ºC and atmospheric pressure in certain places sometimes rises to 10 millibars, liquid water can certainly exist even today – the question is for how long and over how great an area (DiGregorio, 1997, 165, 298-300, 343).

Various landforms on Mars strongly suggest that abundant liquid water has at times existed on the planet’s surface. There are several examples of outflow channels – huge linear swathes of scoured ground up to 60 km wide and 1200 km long caused by the catastrophic release of water, from bodies of surface water, subsurface aquifers, or the melting of ground ice. The youngest of these channels are thought to be a few million years old. There are also finer-scale, dendritic networks of sinuous valleys and tributaries that appear to have been carved mainly by runoff resulting from rain or snow fall. Some Martian valleys seem to have been shaped by glaciers.

Nirgal Vallis, south of the eastern part of Valles Marineris, a long, winding valley with few tributaries.

Outflow channels emptying into the northern plains of Chryse Planitia on the right side of the image (18°N, 55°W). The area shown is 225 km across. The channels in the upper half of the image, which average 10 km wide and 1 km deep, and are about 180 km long, appear to have been carved by water released from Juventae Chasma, a 250 by 100 km depression several hundred kilometres to the south. (

Where floodwaters encounter the raised rocky rims of craters, they carve teardrop-shaped islands such as these in the Ares Vallis region. (

Yuty crater (20 km in diameter) with fluidized ejecta (22°N, 34°W). The official view is that ‘rampart craters’ like this form when impacts are powerful enough to penetrate to the level of subsurface ice, but don’t vaporize it all, resulting in a muddy slurry that flows along the surface and around obstacles. They could also be created by subterranean explosions. (

When the Spirit rover landed on the floor of Gusev crater in 2004, the dragging of its airbags created what looks like a patch of mud (nicknamed ‘the magic carpet’). This explanation is officially dismissed, but it seems reasonable that a brine solution could lie just beneath the surface, given that the crater was once a lake. (

Left: a possible flowing glacier on Mars. Right: a typical small glacier on earth. (

There are thousands of features along crater and canyon walls that resemble terrestrial gullies; they appear to be very young features, at most a few million years old. They often originate with a small narrow spot, then widen and extend downhill for hundreds of metres. There is also evidence that many gullies are very young and might be actively seeping water today, implying that underground water reservoirs (aquifers) still exist.

Gullies 1 to 10 m wide on a scarp in the Hellas Basin. Some larger channels
on Mars are big enough to be called ravines on earth. (

Gullies in a crater in the Newton Basin (39.0ºS, 166.1ºW), possibly formed by release of
groundwater in geologically recent times. Resolution: 1.5 metres per pixel. (

Mounds and channels have been observed that resemble features associated with hot springs on earth. Scientists believe these may have contained life and could now contain fossils.

Other geological features pointing to large quantities of surface water include deltas and alluvial fans in craters that once contained lakes. Some scientists argue that at times much of the planet’s low northern plains were covered with an ocean.

A distributary fan in Eberswalde crater (24.3ºS, 33.5ºW). The area shown is 14 by 19.3 km. The fan was probably once a delta, a sedimentary deposit formed where a river enters a body of water. The floors of the former channels are now raised above the surroundings, because they are composed of harder, cemented sedimentary rock that has eroded more slowly. (

False-colour topographic map of former lakes in the cratered highlands of Mars. Lighter colours denote higher elevations. The largest of the three lakes overtopped its basin rim and the resulting outflow toward the north (arrow) carved Ma’adim Vallis, which is larger than the Grand Canyon. The basin and valleys are now dry, but evidence of the former lake shorelines has been preserved. (

Vast beds of sediments, laid down in martian lakes and oceans, have been observed, and stretch for hundreds of kilometres; in Valles Marineris the sediments are up to 7 km thick. The water could have come from atmospheric precipitation in the form of rain and snow, or from the rapid melting of ground ice (permafrost) triggered by some sudden event.

Layered sedimentary rocks in a crater in the Arabia Terra region (8ºN, 353ºE). The layers are all approximately 10 m thick. The view covers an area about 2 km across. (mars.jpl.nasa.go)

Layered outcrops in a 1.5 km by 2.9 km area in far southwestern Candor Chasma, Valles Marineris. (

The minerals haematite and goethite have been detected on Mars, both of which sometimes form in the presence of water. The Opportunity rover landed in an area of haematite spheres, each a few millimetres in diameter, termed ‘blueberries’, covering the ground to the horizon in every direction. Similar spherical haematite, called pesolite (‘pea-like’), is found on earth in geologic beds from the dinosaur era, and appears to require organic matter or perhaps even bacteria to form (Brandenburg, 2011, 190). Jarosite has also been detected, and this mineral forms only in the presence of acidic water (

Blueberries. (courtesy of Keith Laney)

A martian ocean

Some scientists believe that the smooth, sparsely cratered northern plains were once an ocean basin, dubbed Oceanus Borealis, perhaps 1.5 km deep, into which numerous water channels appear to have emptied. Around the edge of the basin, which covers about a third of Mars’ surface, are features indicative of ancient shorelines, and the terrain changes to rugged and crater-pocked, with a higher elevation. A large northern ocean would explain the global pattern of valleys, whose total length was found in 2009 to be 2.3 times longer than had previously been thought. There is a southern limit to valley networks, and valleys become shallower from north to south, because the southernmost regions of Mars, located farthest from the ocean, would receive little rainfall ( It is currently assumed that Mars only ever had a northern ocean, which grew and shrank, but this theory may prove to be too simplistic. The ocean water is believed to have escaped into space or have been deposited in the ice caps or trapped in the soil.

The different elevations of martian terrain, ranging from high mountains and volcanoes to deep valleys and basins, indicate that vertical tectonic forces have been at work on the planet, just as they have on earth (see Sunken continents). But some scientists prefer to believe that the huge northern basin, Vastitas Borealis, which lies 4-5 km below the mean planetary elevation, is the result of the northern hemisphere being struck 4 billion years ago by an object up to two-thirds the size of the moon, creating an impact crater 10,600 km long by 8500 km wide, or roughly the size of Europe, Asia, and Australia combined.

A northern ocean on Mars. (

The Viking landers both touched down on the smooth plains of the old ocean basin. Although the two sites were 4000 miles apart, the soil they analysed at each site was remarkably similar and equally salty, and its composition resembled ocean clays on earth.

Many scientists accept that Mars might have had an ocean in the early part of its history, perhaps until around 3.8 billion years ago. John Brandenburg believes the ocean might not have disappeared until around 500 million years ago.

In Elysium Planitia, a large volcanic region near the equator, an area measuring about 800 by 900 km is believed by some scientists to consist of frozen water ice covered by a layer of volcanic ash some 45 m thick. This interpretation is based on the flat plates, fracture patterns, and curved rims of impact craters (typical of craters that form in ice). In one locality, the ice is at or very near the surface and is regarded as pack ice. The former sea is believed to have frozen quickly, perhaps as recently as 2 to 5 million years ago. (;;

The search for life

The surface of Mars is blasted by harsh ultraviolet light from the sun, due to the lack of a thick atmosphere and ozone layer. Macroscopic terrestrial creatures such as plants and mammals would not be able to survive under those conditions, though microorganisms would. Some terrestrial microorganisms could also easily thrive in the martian soil, with its heavy sulphur-iron content. Although it would be wrong to assume that all lifeforms must be carbon-based and require liquid water just because this is true of terrestrial lifeforms, it could have been the case on Mars.

In 1976 the two Viking landers each performed three tests for microbial life in the martian soil: the pyrolytic release (PR) experiment looked for signs of bacterial growth using radioactively labelled nutrients; the gas exchange (GEx) experiment looked for respiration by microbes; and the labelled release (LR) experiment looked for ingestion of radioactively labelled nutrients. The LR experiment – the most sensitive one – gave strongly positive results, which were confirmed by null responses from control samples that were first heated to kill any microorganisms. The other two experiments did not yield the overall results expected for life, but some of the results were ambiguous and were attributed to the presence of superoxidant chemicals in the soil (DiGregorio, 1997, 11-5, 145-74, 291-7; Levin, 2007a, b).

A fourth experiment was also conducted: the samples were put in a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GCMS) on board the landers and cooked to see if any organic matter existed in the soil, but none was found. Although this experiment was never proposed as a test for life, the results were invoked to argue that the positive results from the LR experiment were not due to microbial life. Gilbert Levin, one of the designers of the LR experiment, strongly disagrees. He says that all the exotic inorganic-chemical explanations have been refuted, and that later research has shown that the gas chromatograph test was too insensitive even to detect organic molecules in an Antarctic soil sample that contained life. Biologist Joseph Miller has argued that data from the LR experiment show oscillations with a period of one martian day; these circadian rhythms are consistent with the presence of life (

In 1988 Levin managed to force NASA to change its verdict on the Viking life results from ‘negative’ to ‘inconclusive’. Perhaps due to the controversy surrounding the Viking results, no subsequent mission to Mars has included a life detection experiment. Levin calls this ‘a strange retrogression of the scientific method’.

More recently, DNA damage by cosmic radiation has been cited as limiting life on Mars to depths below 7.5 m. This conclusion is based on the assumption that martian regolith down to that depth has constantly remained below freezing for at least hundreds of thousands of years. Yet surface temperature measurements have recorded temperatures of 0ºC to over 22ºC around local noon, which would allow ample time for repair of radiation-damaged DNA (Levin, 2007b).

As already mentioned, the reddish surface of Mars is due to the presence of iron oxides. Some scientists argue that the soil has been coloured red by aeons of widespread wearing by water, vegetation and microbial activity, in the presence of what was once an oxygen-rich atmosphere. On earth, atmospheric oxygen is the result of photosynthesis by plant life: plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen, while humans do the opposite. Valles Marineris exposes sediments some 7 km thick and they are all light-red, showing that Mars is oxidized in depth and not just on its surface.

While the mainstream view is that nothing more than microbial life could ever have evolved on Mars, researchers such as John Brandenburg believe that plants, animals and advanced intelligent life had ample time to evolve.


Since the early 1960s controversial evidence has been presented of microbial fossils in meteorites, some of them thought to have come from Mars. The most publicized case involved a meteorite called ALH84001 and was announced by NASA in 1996. The meteorite is believed to have formed about 4.5 billion years ago, to have left Mars about 16 million years ago when an impactor blasted it into space, and to have landed in Antarctica about 13,000 years ago. The microscopic structures were found in a tiny seam of carbonate rock probably deposited in water. Associated with the carbonates are organic compounds (PAHs) which on earth are produced during alteration of biological remains in sedimentary rocks.

Outline of what might be microscopic fossils of bacteria-like organisms found in meteorite ALH84001. The tube-like objects are less than 1/100 the width of a human hair. If these really are fossils, they are about a tenth the size of nanofossils found on earth. (;

The planetary science community as a whole believes the evidence for microfossils in martian meteorites is not compelling. John Brandenburg (2011, 122) takes a different view:

an angry mob of scientists attacked the ALH84001 biology results. ... The ALH84001 scientists responded with evidence for life found in other Mars meteorites, such as Nakhla, but it did no good. ...
    A dozen arcane non-biological scenarios were invoked to explain the collection of chemical and morphological features found in ALH84001. As soon as one such non-biological mechanism was swatted down another dozen took its place. All of these non-biological scenarios were complex and some outrageously so, but all were entertained, even applauded, because they were all simpler than the simplest living cell.


Substantial methane plumes have been detected in the lower martian atmosphere, coming from a water-rich area near the equator called Arabia Terra. The plumes begin in the northern spring when the ground begins to warm, and peak in late summer. Since methane is quickly destroyed in the martian atmosphere, some ongoing process must be releasing the gas. Volcanic activity is a potential source of methane, but has not been confirmed by thermal mapping of Mars. The only other thing known to make such large amounts of methane is anaerobic bacteria consuming dead organic matter and converting it to methane to make energy. On earth, atmospheric methane is sustained primarily by biological metabolism, e.g. in swamps and cows’ intestines.

Methane plumes (red, yellow and green) on Mars. (

Microscopic lifeforms may be producing the methane far below the martian surface, where it’s still warm enough for liquid water to exist. The reason the plumes are emitted during the warmer seasons – spring and summer – may be because the permafrost that is blocking cracks and fissures vaporizes, allowing methane to seep into the air. The methane detected on Mars is associated with water vapour in the lower atmosphere, consistent with the presence of life. Atmospheric formaldehyde and ammonia have also been detected, and are frequently involved in microbial metabolism.

Bacteria and vegetation

Many martian rocks seem to be coated with a hard, dark, shiny substance known as desert varnish, which on earth is generally produced by bacteria, fungi, algae and lichens. Some rocks have blue and green patches that change seasonally and show the spectral response of lichens. Bacteria, fungi, algae and lichens also play a role in generating desert caliches, a calcium carbonate deposit in the soil, which also seems to be present in some images from Mars. On earth, these desert crusts can switch almost instantly from a dry dormant state to an active state upon wetting. Barry DiGregorio suggests that a vast living desert crust may lie under the surface of the martian soil and be responsible for a planet-wide wave of darkening when atmospheric water vapour or water becomes available; the standard theory is that the darkening is caused by wind-blown dust (DiGregorio, 70-1, 272-80, 336-8).

Viking 2 landing site. Note the blues and greens in the soil and on the rocks, which some scientists believe might be caused by algae-like organisms. (

In the polar regions of Mars there are mysterious dark spots, fan-like markings, and spider-shaped features, ranging in size from tens to hundreds of metres, which show seasonal changes in shape, size and colour. Some dark patches disappear over winter but reappear in the same places in the spring. The features are found predominantly in an area of the south polar cap consisting of cryptic terrain, characterized by low temperature and low albedo (reflectivity). Some scientists believe that microorganisms could play a role in some of these features. Some even believe that ‘spiders’ might be trees and plants that have become adapted to the very harsh conditions on the martian surface (Ness & Orme, 2002; Orme & Ness, 2003).

Despite how they might look to the untrained eye, spiders have been found to be negative topographical features (depressions); they consist of radial troughs or narrow, shallow channels. The standard, nonbiological explanation of these features is as follows. In winter a significant fraction of the atmosphere freezes out in the form of CO2 ice on the polar caps. It used to be thought that the dark spots, fans and blotches that form as the ice cap retreats during spring and summer were bare, defrosted ground. But since they are now known to remain at CO2 ice temperatures well into summer, they are now considered to be granular materials that have been brought up to the surface of the ice. The translucent slab of CO2 ice is believed to sublimate from the base, where sunlight warms a layer of dark sand and dust. High-pressure gas builds up beneath the slab, lifting the ice, which eventually ruptures, producing high-velocity CO2 vents that erupt sand-sized grains in jets to form the spots and erode the channels (Kieffer et al., 2006).

Some investigators regard spiders and dark spots as different phases in the development of the same phenomenon. But although they often appear together, and spider grooves sometimes radiate from dark spots, this is not always the case, and they can also appear separately (Horváth et al., 2009). Spider-type structures and dark spots come in many different varieties and have been found as close to the equator as 43ºS, and there is no doubt far more to be learned about the various factors involved in their formation.


Tom Van Flandern: ‘Possible vegetation: The thickness of the dark structures increases at lower altitudes, just as it does on Earth. The edges have a fractal character, almost a signature of vegetation on Earth. On the right, a radial quality, much like terrestrial life with a stem or trunk, may be discerned.’ (; M1001442 (79.02°S, 336.19°W) and M0804688 (82.02°S, 284.38°W))


Features like those in the left-hand image (M0804688) are widely believed to be caused by jets of carbon dioxide gas erupting from the ice cap as it warms in the spring; dark sand and dust are carried aloft and then fall back to the surface. Dark spots, typically 15 to 46 m wide, appear first, followed by fan-shaped dark markings, which may grow to half a mile in length. The dark patches disappear in winter, when a layer of CO2 ice about a metre thick covers the thin layer of dark sand and dust lying on a permanent ice cap of water ice. In spring, the cycle begins again: sunlight warms the dark material, the ice touching it sublimates, and trapped gas eventually breaks through the CO2 slab at weak spots that become vents. As high-pressure gas rushes towards the vents it snatches up particles of sand and carves the spidery network of grooves (

‘Starburst spiders’ in polar ice (81.8°S, 76.2°E); the image covers an area about 1 km across. The radial troughs ‘are believed to be formed by gas flowing beneath the seasonal ice to openings where the gas escapes, carrying along dust from the surface below. The dust falls to the surface of the ice in fan-shaped deposits’ (PIA11858).

These spiders (87.0°S, 127.3°E) are regarded as radiating fractures associated
with small domes or swells (ESP_011776_0930;

Although the dark fans fade away in summer, the spider channels remain clearly visible.
(85.4°S, 104.0°E; PSP_004748_0945)

A team of Hungarian scientists contends that martian surface organisms, similar to the cyanobacteria that inhabit extreme environments on earth, might play a role in the seasonal cycle of certain types of dark dune spots, alongside the alternating process of frosting and defrosting (Horváth et al., 2002; Pocs et al., 2003a, 2003b, Gánti et al., 2006). The dark dune fields where they occur are composed of fine-grained, dark-blue, aeolian sediments, mainly dense basaltic fragments. They are mostly located in craters in the southern polar region, between 60° and 82° south latitude. The diameter of the spots ranges from a few dozen to a few hundred metres, and about 70% reappear in the same places the following year.

Seasonal changes of dark dune spots in the region known as the ‘Inca City’ (82°S, 295°E). (Pócs et al., 2003a)

The annual reappearance of dark dune spots in the Inca City from 1998 (a) to 1999 (b). (Pócs et al., 2003b)


Model showing how photosynthetic microorganisms may play a role in the annual development of certain dark dune spots (Gánti et al., 2006). The organisms undergo a cycle of dessication and revival; liquid water is the source of their life activity, which in turn helps to melt the ice.

Northern dark dune spots (76°N, 95°E) also show seasonal changes. In early spring small dark spots appear (a) which grow larger (b) till the end of spring, but in summer no traces of the spots can be seen on the defrosted dark dunes (c). (Pócs et al., 2003a)

Northern polar dune field (for complete image see: PSP_007962_2635). The ‘trees’ that appear to rise from the martian surface are an optical illusion. The favoured theory is dry dust avalanches: when dry ice is heated by the sun and sublimates into vapour, basaltic sand and dust particles are pushed to the surface and run down the dunes, forming dark streaks ( Another theory is that when the sun warms up the soil, the water ice above it melts to form liquid water; eventually a hole is created through the overlying CO2 ice and the soil-water mixture seeps out and down the slope. When streaks reach flat ground, pond-like features appear at the end. Once the water evaporates, the wind spreads out part of the soil, creating diffuse bright areas around the spots and more diffuse streaks directed away from the spots (Appel et al., 2010). The thin streaks always begin at a point source and widen downslope. They can grow to many hundreds of metres long, sometimes weaving around existing topographic features (such as dunes or craters), and sometimes flowing over them. Newly formed streaks are dark in colour but appear to become lighter as they age (


The Opportunity rover has photographed several fossil-looking objects.

Segmented ‘fossil’ on El Capitan rock. The central part consists of at least five cylindrical segments. At the top, it appears to begin branching into two, with the upper part missing, while at the bottom there appears to be a taillike shape. It has been compared to a Crinoid (sea lily), a filter-feeding marine plantlike animal that appeared on earth in the Cambrian. The NASA team instructed the rover to grind the rock into dust with the rock abrasion tool (RAT). (

Closeup of a tubular shape reminiscent of a fossil or cryptobiotic soil crusts (i.e. soil
containing bacteria, algae, fungi, or lichens). (;

The Face on Mars

Viking 1976

The Cydonia region of Mars lies north of the equator in a transitional zone between the heavily cratered regions to the south and the relatively smooth plains to the north. It may once have been situated near the shoreline of an ancient ocean.

In the late martian afternoon on 25 July 1976 a Viking orbiter flew over Cydonia at an altitude of 1873 km and photographed a large rock formation or mesa that looked like a humanoid face; the frame number is 35A72, i.e. the 72nd image taken by the A spacecraft (Viking 1) during its 35th orbit. The Face measures about 2.5 by 2 km and is located at 41.09ºN, 9.80ºW. At a NASA press conference, it was dismissed as a trick of light and shadow, and a Viking project scientist, Gerry Soffen, claimed that in an image taken later in the day the impression of a ‘face’ had disappeared. The truth is that later in the day the Viking orbiter was thousands of miles away from Cydonia.

Three years later Vincent DiPietro and Gregory Molenaar, engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, came across the same picture in the Viking photo archives. They eventually found another image taken 35 days later in which the Face was still visible, despite the different sun angle (frame 70A13). Both images had been misfiled. Eight other Viking images were taken over the region of the Face, and all but two (where clouds obscured the image) confirmed the existence of an object looking like a face, despite the different camera angles and lighting conditions.


The Face on Mars. Top: raw image (the dots, including the ‘nostril’, are data transmission errors) (35A72). Bottom left: enhanced version of 35A72. Bottom right: enhanced version of 70A13 (courtesy of Mark Carlotto). In the first image the sun angle was only 10° above the western horizon so most of the right side of the mesa is in shadow. In the second the sun was 17° higher, revealing more of the right side. The spacecraft was virtually overhead when the images were taken: the camera line of sight was only 10º off nadir (the line connecting the spacecraft to the centre of the planet) for the first image, and 12º off nadir for the second. The resolution of the two images is about 46 metres per pixel and 43 metres per pixel respectively.

A number of researchers launched an independent investigation to study whether the Face might have been carved from a pre-existing landform. In addition to DiPietro and Molenaar, they included science writer Richard Hoagland, imaging expert Mark Carlotto, cartographer and geologist Erol Torun, and physicist John Brandenburg. Other structures in the Cydonia region also attracted attention: the D&M Pyramid (discovered by DiPietro and Molenaar), a long straight ridge (the Cliff) on top of a long mesa, the conical Tholus, and a group of polyhedral objects lying about 20 km southwest of the Face, dubbed ‘the City’ (see next section for details). The City and Face are located near the zero kilometre datum, or what might once have been sea level. Some researchers think the Face may once have been an island.


Nature tends to create structures that are self-similar (fractal); for instance, if a leaf is examined at greater and greater resolution, the same kind of pattern is repeated on smaller and smaller scales. Fractal models can be used to describe a wide range of natural phenomena, including plants, clouds, lightning, natural terrain, and coastlines. Using a technique for detecting man-made objects such as military vehicles in overhead imagery, Mark Carlotto found that the Face was the least fractal object, i.e. the least natural-looking object, in an area of about 15,000 square km.

Carlotto developed a method known as shape-from-shading which allowed him to compute the 3D structure of the Face mesa. He found that the appearance of a face persisted over a wide range of lighting and viewing angles. This contrasts with facial profiles or silhouettes of natural origin, such as New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain in the US.

The Old Man of the Mountain was a series of five granite cliff ledges on Cannon Mountain in the White Mountains of New Hampshire which, when viewed from the north, appeared to be the jagged profile of a face. It collapsed on 3 May 2003.

Mars Observer

In September 1992 NASA launched the Mars Observer spacecraft, which carried a new, state-of-the-art camera (Mars Orbiter Camera, or MOC) capable of capturing images at 1.4 m per pixel. The camera was designed by Malin Space Science Systems, directed by Michael Malin, which was awarded an exclusive contract to decide which areas of Mars to target. The contract allowed Malin to withhold imagery from the public for six to nine months. He was not originally intending to re-image Cydonia, saying that the ‘best scientific evaluation’ had found no credible evidence that the features were artificial. It has been established, however, that NASA has never officially performed a scientific study because it considers it a waste of time. However, in spring 1999 Hoagland, Torun and Carlotto met the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and NASA later said that photographs of Cydonia would be taken, ‘if only to kill off the rumours’.

On 21 August 1993 NASA lost communication with Mars Observer just before it was due to enter orbit around Mars. NASA appeared to make no real effort to regain contact with the spacecraft, and Hoagland became convinced that it was engaged in a full-blown coverup that had been going on for decades. He points to a report issued by the Brookings Institution in 1960, commissioned by NASA, which briefly considered the possibility that if alien artifacts were discovered on the moon or other planets, it might be necessary to withhold information because of the potentially ‘devastating’ effect on fundamentalists, scientists, and society at large.

About two dozen other independent researchers, led by Stanley McDaniel, formed the Society for Planetary SETI Research (SPSR). Earlier in 1993 McDaniel had published the McDaniel Report, which sharply criticized NASA for its unscientific behaviour on the question of possible artifacts on Mars and its attempts to curtail debate by resorting to misrepresentation and ridicule. SPSR members tended to attribute NASA scientists’ behaviour to prejudice, incompetence and/or fear of damaging their reputation, rather than to a grand conspiracy to conceal the truth.

On 24 November 1993 six SPSR members met with Carl Pilcher, Acting Director of Solar System Studies, and NASA scientist Joseph Boyce. Pilcher is reported to have said that everyone at NASA was interested in having Cydonia re-imaged, ‘one group because they wanted to show us how wrong we [the independent researchers] are and have been all along; the other group, because they feel that we have some interesting material, and they would like to see just how interesting it turns out to be’ (Carlotto, 2008, 110-1).

As an example of the human tendency to see faces everywhere in nature, NASA
likes to display photos of the ‘Happy Face’ crater on Mars, 215 km wide. (

Mars Global Surveyor 1998: the Catbox

The next mission, Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), was launched in November 1996. The spacecraft was fitted with a slightly upgraded version of the Mars Orbiter Camera. On 5 April 1998 it rephotographed the Face (image PIA01236). The new image was taken mid-morning during the martian winter with the spacecraft viewing the western side of the Face at an angle of 45°; the eastern side appears highly foreshortened in the direction of view. The sun was 25º above the eastern horizon, lighting the Face from below, so that the effect was rather like holding a flashlight under a person’s chin. In addition, the surface is obscured in places by thin clouds and haze. The bright areas in the image may be the result of frost. The stated resolution was 4.3 m per pixel, but the actual resolution was more like 14 m per pixel.

The next day the Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a low-contrast image, processed in a way that made the Face appear flat and featureless; this was the outcome of applying a weird combination of high-pass, low-pass, noise, and embossing filters (; Hoagland and Bara, 2009, 367). The resulting image was so washed out that it looked more like scratchings in cat litter and was mockingly dubbed ‘the Catbox’. It seemed to confirm the official position that the Face was ‘just a pile of rocks’, and the media pronounced the case closed.

The Catbox.

A few hours after releasing the Catbox image to the media, NASA posted a different version of the image on its website, in which Timothy Parker tried to orthorectify it, i.e. simulate what the Face would look like if photographed directly overhead. Mark Carlotto (2008, 121) says that Parker made such a poor job of this that ‘the internal structure of the Face is pushed off to the wrong side in places by up to 400 meters, making it look much less symmetrical and face-like than it actually is’. He adds that, whether deliberate or not, the orthorectified image, like the earlier contrast-enhanced image, ‘was a gross misrepresentation of the data – distortions the scientific community and the media seem to accept without question’. Lan Fleming, a NASA subcontractor, says that the Catbox is ‘undoubtedly the shoddiest piece of image processing work released in the 40-year history of the space program’ and was ‘almost certainly a highly unethical (and highly successful) attempt to manipulate public opinion’ ( It’s noteworthy that shortly after the image was released, geologist Michael Carr commented: ‘I hope we’ve scotched this thing for good’ (Carlotto, 115).

NASA’s orthorectification, in which the Face’s centreline is warped to the far right (SP122003). Its sheer incompetence is confirmed by a comparison with NASA’s own later images (see below).

Mars Global Surveyor 2001

In early 2001, the Formal Action Committee for Extra-Terrestrial Studies (FACETS) issued an ultimatum to NASA to rephotograph the Face and other Cydonia landforms otherwise they would sue it. NASA replied by claiming that it had openly distributed all images obtained of the Face and stated that several images acquired recently (8 April 2001) had been released on public websites. This was not true as the images were not in fact available. When this was pointed out to NASA, the images suddenly appeared on the web on 24 May.

They included the first image of the entire Face at high resolution (E0300824); the stated resolution is about 2 m per pixel, but as the full range of contrast was not used, the actual resolution is probably more like 5 to 6 m per pixel. In this case, the camera had to be rolled 24.8° to see the Face 165 km to the west from a distance of about 450 km – the opposite direction than in the case of the 1998 image. The sun’s elevation was 52º, which is so high that it has washed out some of the detail. The eastern ‘nostril’ in the 1998 image is missing in the new image (and several later images); if the remaining ‘nostril’ (a circular depression about 100 m across) lies on the vertical centreline of the Face (and Carlotto’s orthorectification places it on both the vertical and horizontal centrelines, i.e. in the exact centre of the Face), that would indicate that it was not created to represent a nostril.

MOC image E0300824, orthorectified by Lan Fleming (
The ‘nose’ ridge and V-shaped ‘harelip’ features lie along the vertical centreline.

The image confirmed that the right side of the Face does not exactly mirror the left side, while the platform continued to show bilateral symmetry. It also confirmed details of the left, almond-shaped eye socket and round pupil that had first been revealed in an image of a portion of the western side of the Face released in January 2001, with a resolution of 1.7 m per pixel (M1600184).


Left eye of the Face: from images E0300824 (top) and M1600184 (bottom).

The release of the new image of the Face was accompanied by a NASA ‘hit piece’ entitled ‘Unmasking the Face on Mars’. In it, James Garvin, chief scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, is quoted as saying that the Face is ‘not exotic in any way’, and ‘reminds me most of Middle Butte in the Snake River Plain of Idaho’ – but no image of Middle Butte was included.


Middle Butte mesa (left), which NASA scientist Jim Garvin compares to the Face on Mars (right).

The article included a 3D perspective view of the Face which Garvin had produced with Jim Frawley (of Herring Bay Geophysics), based on the latest MOC image and data from MGS’s MOLA instrument (Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter). It showed an ordinary-looking butte or mesa of very low relief. The data were said to prove that ‘There are no eyes, no nose and no mouth!’

NASA’s 3D view of the Face.

There are a number of problems with the 3D view. First, it is presented upside down – which NASA failed to mention. Second, it is improperly orthorectified; features seen along the centreline in Viking data and the 1998 image were now skewed to the western side. Third, while the article says that MOLA measures the heights of objects with a vertical precision of 20 to 30 centimetres, while having a horizontal resolution of only 150 metres per pixel, it fails to mention that MOLA only made two passes over the Face, each comprising 15 to 20 data points, each representing the average height of an area some 150 metres in diameter, with the profiles being spaced 700 to 1400 m apart. Frawley later admitted that the 3D view is 99% based on the MOC image.

The features marked by the red lines should be where the green lines are: the ‘nose’ ridge and ‘harelip’ structures (indicated by the middle red line) actually lie along the centreline of the landform (indicated by the middle green line) ( It’s probably no accident that Garvin and Frawley express ‘special thanks’ to Michael Malin, a dedicated opponent of the artificiality hypothesis, for his assistance. Hoagland & Bara (2009, 409-10) comment: ‘it is highly unlikely that anyone would recognize a picture of their own grandmother if it was stretched horizontally, flattened, compressed and shown upside down.’

Moreover, as Lan Fleming (2001) has shown, NASA probably made a mistake and used the wrong data – from another mesa several kilometres away from the Face. The NASA article claimed that the Face is only 240 m (800 ft) tall, whereas Mark Carlotto’s analyses of earlier images had indicated that the height is 395 to 430 m. Fleming says that using the correct MOLA data for the Face, the maximum height measured was 330 metres, 90 m more than NASA’s estimate, but this need not be the maximum height as there is no certainty that the spacecraft passed precisely over the tip of the ‘nose’. Fleming comments: ‘All conclusions presented in the NASA article based upon the MOLA data are therefore invalid.’

Further MGS images of the Face were released in October 2002 (E1003730), April 2003 (E1701041 and E1501347), and 2007 (S1501533).

An image of the Face taken by Mars Odyssey’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) was released in April 2002 (PIA03768). On this occasion, the official webpage compared the Face to Arizona’s Camelback Mountain (again without providing a picture of it), which is said to show the outline of a reclining camel when viewed in profile from the ground. The Face, on the other hand, if it is partly artificial, is a 3D structure designed to be viewed from above.

Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. Another irrelevant distraction.

The Badlands Guardian, near Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, is far more intriguing. Viewed from the air, it looks like a human head wearing a native headdress and earphones. The ‘earphones’ are actually a road and a gas well. The other features are attributed to wind and water erosion of the clay-rich soil. See Google map here.


While the platform or ‘headdress’ surrounding the Face shows remarkable symmetry (though some parts of the eastern platform slope seem to have slumped outwards a little), and the highest point (the nose tip) and the triangular ‘harelip’ are situated on the vertical centreline, it has been clear ever since Viking that other features on either side of the Face are not mirror images of each other. There are several possible explanations for this: 1. the mesa is entirely the product of random, natural forces, and any resemblance to a face is entirely accidental; 2. the platform is partly the work of intelligent beings, but its surface was not meant to represent a face; 3. when originally carved, possibly millions of years ago, the Face was perfectly symmetrical but has since suffered erosion, deposition, and other forms of damage (particularly the right-hand side); 4. the Face was designed to be asymmetrical (half hominid, half feline), and this dichotomy is still clearly visible despite any damage it may have suffered.

Mark Carlotto has shown that the Face’s platform and internal facial features fit well with the geometry of a series of nested 4 by 3 rectangles. (Carlotto, 2001;

The idea that the Face was designed to be half-hominid (the left side) and half-feline (the right side) has been championed by various researchers (e.g. Hoagland & Bara, 2009; Haas & Saunders, 2005). It is hard to believe, however, that the rough features of the right side were designed that way. On earth, split-face iconography is known from the Mayan and Olmec cultures of Central America. In many cases split faces are man/animal hybrids, e.g. man/jaguar or man/bat (Haas & Saunders, 96-9, 283). And of course there is the Egyptian Sphinx, with its human head and lion’s body. The Sphinx, which faces east, was called ‘Horakhti’, or ‘Horus of the horizon’, Horus being among other things a sky god and war god. ‘Horakhti’ was also one of the Egyptian names for Mars, others being ‘Horus the red’ and ‘the eastern star’.



The result of mirroring each side of the Face in turn, and a lion for comparison.

A Mayan human-and-jaguar skull mask.

Mark Carlotto (2008, 137-8, 148-9) argues that the Face’s deviations from symmetry can be explained by erosion, deposition of windblown material such as sand, and mass wasting (the slow downslope movement of rock or sediment). He says that the mainly westerly winds may be eroding material from the left (western) side of the Face and depositing it on the right side; the eastern half appears to be significantly taller than the western half. The right eye structure could be partially filled with sand or with debris from what was once the right extension of the brow ridge. There is evidence of sand accumulation on the right side below the eye, and the light-coloured crescent-shaped structure on the lower right of the Face could also be a dune. Asymmetry along the nose ridge could be due to mass wasting. The lack of strong shadows on the right side of the Face suggests that the mouth does not extend across the Face, though close examination of high-resolution images does reveal faint outlines. The right side of the mouth depression might be filled with windblown material and/or rocks that have broken off the nose. Below the left eye is a feature known as the ‘tear drop’ which some researchers believe was placed there deliberately (statues with tear drops are also found on earth), but Carlotto thinks it might be rubble that has slid down from the nose ridge.

Tom Van Flandern (2001a,, too, believes the Face was once more symmetrical. Referring to the right (eastern) side, he says that it looks as if something caused the materials of which the Face is composed to flow like lava, pool, and resolidify. He suggests that the cause might have been a meteor impact that struck the bottom right portion of the mesa. The flowing materials – which would have to be metallic – partially filled the ‘mouth’ and ‘eye’ features on the east side, and the blast may also have caused parts of the surface on the eastern side to shear and move. Another hypothesis is that the blast that produced the crater next to the Cliff (see below) damaged the eastern side of the Face (see It has also been suggested that if the Face is partly artificial, some parts may be hollow, and certain areas of the surface may have collapsed inward, such as the region near the bottom right-hand corner.

What has happened to the right-hand side of the Face? (courtesy of Keith Laney)

Mars Express 2006

July 2006 saw the release of an image taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) carried on the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. It was taken from directly overhead, at close to minimum altitude, under full daylight conditions with virtually no cloud cover, and in 24-bit colour. It showed that the two eye sockets precisely align straight across the Face, in contrast to MGS images, which suggested they were significantly out of alignment and also that the Face platform was substantially wider than it is.

2006 HRSC image of the Face (305-230906-3253-6-co2).

Following NASA’s bad example, the ESA also released a misleading 3D perspective view of the Face ( It has been labelled ‘the Unicorn’, because it shows a high peak in the middle of the ‘forehead’. No such ‘horn’ exists, otherwise it would have shown up in the many high-resolution images taken at various sun angles. Lan Fleming (2007) calculates that the elevation at the location of the ‘horn’ is 270 m, whereas the elevation of the tip of nose is 380 m. The ESA has also published a different, more realistic 3D perspective.

Top: The Unicorn, widely disseminated by the mass media.
A more realistic model, not widely publicized. (

Mars Reconnaissance 2007

On 5 April 2007 the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter took an image of the Face with the highest resolution to date: 29.9 cm/pixel, allowing objects ~90 cm across to be resolved. The image was taken at 3:28 pm local Mars time, with the sun 17º above the western horizon, the range to the target site being about 300 km. On the relevant HiRISE webpage the only image shown is a tiny fragment of the Face (a portion of the ‘nose’ and ‘mouth’ area), though this is not actually stated. Several media outlets have assumed that this fragment is actually the entire ‘face’ (e.g. and concluded that the Face is just a pile of rocks.

2007 HiRise image of the Face (PSP_003234_2210). (;
(For closeups, see

Closeup of the left (western) eye. Could this distinct feature, in exactly
the right place, really be the result of random geological forces?

Despite all the excellent imagery that now exists, the question of artificiality will not be resolved until a manned expedition makes a detailed investigation of the Face and other potentially artificial structures.

The Cydonia complex

D&M Pyramid

The D&M Pyramid lies about 20 km south of the Face. The Pyramid of Giza was designed to be about 146 m high and 230 m long, whereas the D&M Pyramid is about 1250 m high and its sides are between 2700 and 3800 m long. It appears to be a five-sided structure, displaying remarkable symmetry, and might have been carved from a pre-existing landform. One of its sides is aligned due south. High-resolution images show that the pyramid is rather degraded, as a result of erosion, deposition, mass wasting, and possible inward collapse.

Viking image of the D&M Pyramid (1976, 70A11), enhanced by Mark Carlotto.

Mars Odyssey THEMIS image of the D&M Pyramid (2002).

Mars Express image of the D&M pyramid (2006, 305-230906-3253-6-co1)

Based on the THEMIS image, Mark Carlotto (2008, 150-1) writes:

If we split the pyramid along its axis of symmetry, in plan view, each half consists of a 30 degree isosceles triangle, a right triangle, and an equilateral triangle. In all, the D&M appears to be composed of five triangular facets – three are equilateral and two are right triangles. Equally intriguing is that the D&M’s axis of symmetry lies roughly in the direction of the grid discovered by Crater and McDaniel in their analysis of the mounds [see below], which is also aligned with the major axes of several other objects including the Face.

NASA has consistently argued that the Face and other objects in Cydonia are nothing but odd-looking rock formations, formed by natural processes such as volcanism, tectonism, catastrophic flooding, mass wasting, freezing and thawing, wind erosion and deposition, fluvial erosion, glaciation, and meteoric impact.

Erol Torun, a cartographer at the US Defense Mapping Agency and a trained geologist, argues that natural forces are unlikely to have formed the D&M pyramid. Fluvial processes cannot produce sharp-edged, multifaceted, symmetrical shapes. Prevailing winds are unlikely to have shifted periodically with perfect symmetry and timing, and each shift in direction would start erasing the edges formed by other wind directions. Mass wasting has shaped many of the irregular rock formations in Cydonia but it cannot leave behind multiple flat surfaces and straight edges, nor would it occur symmetrically. There is also no evidence that the pyramid is the result of volcanic activity or large-scale crystal growth. However, it is too soon to entirely rule out the possibility that some form of enigmatic geology can form pyramid-like shapes on Mars.

The Cliff

Lying 18 km northeast of the Face, the Cliff is an anomalously straight ridge, approximately 2.5 km long, perched on top of an elongated, flat-topped mesa surrounded by the ejecta blanket of a nearby crater. It lies roughly in line with the Face and the City.

Viking image of the Cliff.

MGS image of the Cliff (M1800606).

Mars Express image of the Cliff.

The Tholus

Located about 30 km southeast of the Face, the Tholus is a conical hill about 1500 ft high, with a circular base about a mile wide. It has been compared to Silbury Hill in England. In the 1976 Viking image a groove appears to spiral up towards the peak of the Tholus while another encircles the hill about half way up. The 1999 MGS image only shows the latter groove, which appears to be a fissure, with a small superimposed crater. The central peak is well defined, as is a shallow pit beside it. Carlotto (2008, 76-7, 130-1) says that the Tholus displays no evidence of volcanism, is not impact related, and its symmetrical shape and uniform low gradients make it difficult to explain as a remnant of a larger non-distinct landform. On the other hand, Peter Ness, also of the SPSR, says that the Tholus is merely a small volcano, and the circular fracture pattern indicates that the area around of the central cone is collapsing into a classical caldera (

Viking image of the Tholus.

MGS image of the Tholus (M0300766).

The Fort

The ‘City’ includes the ‘Fort’, Starfish Pyramid, and several mounds.

In the original Viking image, the Fort (or Fortress) appears to consist of three straight sides enclosing a triangular courtyard. In the MGS image taken in 2000, the Fort, illuminated from the south, loses its geometrical appearance and looks highly eroded; the courtyard is seen to be part of the structure’s elevated platform. The three straight edges are still there, but not as obvious because of the lighting geometry. There is a trench or pathway of some kind radiating from the eastern side.

Viking image of the Fort (35A72).

MGS image of the Fort (M0905394 and M0401903).

The Starfish Pyramid

The Starfish Pyramid, also known as the City Pyramid or Main Pyramid, appears to have five sides, divided by spine-like edges similar to those on the D&M pyramid.

The Starfish Pyramid (MGS, SP125803, April 1998), with inset from Viking frame 70A11. The MGS image was acquired about 30º from vertical, distorting the true shape of the pyramid. (

A portion of the Starfish Pyramid (MGS, PIA02092, June 1999). This image was acquired from almost directly overhead, and shows the straightness of two of the edges.

The Starfish Pyramid seen from MGS on 21 March 2001. Below it is the ‘city square’. (


A group of 12 mound-like formations in Cydonia, measuring 0.1 to 0.2 km and spaced up to 3 km apart, have relative positions that repeatedly display symmetries that are very unlikely to occur by chance (Crater, 2007; Crater & McDaniel, 1999).

Mounds of Cydonia.

Focusing on the five mounds G, E, A, D, and B, the four right-angled triangles GEA, BAE, GAD, and ADB all have the same angles. Triangles GEB and GAB are congruent (i.e. have the same shape and size). Isosceles triangle ADE is the double of the triangle ADB. Note that if the distance DB = 1 unit, then EA = 2 units, and GD = 3 units. Also, if the area of ADB = 1 unit of area, then the areas of both GEA and BAE = 2 units, the area of GAD = 3 units, and the area of the pentad GABDE = 5 units. The obtuse triangles GED and EDB also have areas of 1 unit. These five mounds are at 5 of the 8 nodal points of a special rectangle called the √2 rectangle (if AB = 1, AE = √2), which is closely related to the geometry of a tetrahedron (a regular polyhedron having four triangular faces).

The angles of a right-angled triangle can be written as follows: 90, 45+t/2, 45-t/2. For the right-angled triangles mentioned above, and also others formed by the mounds (e.g. PEG, PMD), the value of t is about 19.5º. If a tetrahedron is inscribed in a sphere with the apex placed at either pole, the three corners of the base will touch the sphere at a latitude of 19.47º in the opposite hemisphere. This latitude marks the approximate location of major vorticular upwellings of planetary and solar energy (see Patterns in nature, section 7).

The vertices of the triangles coincide with the vertices of a rectilinear grid oriented about 35.25° north of east. The orientation of several of the larger objects in Cydonia – the Face, Fort, Starfish Pyramid and a rounded formation west of the City – is about 31.8° north of east. Given the measurement error margin, the actual orientation of all these objects could be exactly the same; the average value is approximately 33.3° northeast. For the sun to rise 33.3° north of east on the first day of summer, Mars’ axial tilt would have to be 24.4º. Based on the official (unproven) theory of how the tilt of its axis oscillates to and fro, this was the case eight times in the past half million years (Carlotto, 159-61, 166).

There is also a speculative theory that Mars’ outer shell has periodically shifted over its inner shell, causing the displacement of the geographic poles and equator (see Poleshifts, part 2). Some researchers, such as Tom Van Flandern, argue that the Face and City once lay approximately on the equator, and the Face was aligned north-south. Van Flandern even speculates that Mars was once the moon of a larger planet that exploded 65 million years ago, producing part of the nearby asteroid belt; what is now Mars’ southern hemisphere was allegedly plastered with debris, explaining its higher elevation (

Other possible anomalies

Many people have identified other objects on Mars that they think might be entirely or partially of artificial origin, many of them not particularly convincing. A small selection is presented below.

Top: ‘Inca City’, Mare Australe (81.5°S, 65°W). The picture shows an area of approximately 20 by 14 km. Scientists coined the name ‘Inca City’ in 1972 because the rectilinear, intersecting ridges imaged by Mariner 9 ‘superficially’ resembled ancient ruins. The official view is that the ridges could be the result of either sand and gravel or magma infiltrating into fractures and hardening, with the wind later scouring away the less-resistant deposits in between. The enigmatic dark spots are about 20 to 100 metres in size ( Bottom: MGS imagery has shown that the Inca City is part of a circular formation, assumed to be an ancient impact crater, but ‘it does not reveal the exact origin of these striking and unusual martian landforms’ (

A complex (M0803500). Tom Van Flandern: ‘This image displays all of the primary indicators of artificial structures: symmetry, linearity, angularity, and layering over a variety of scales, present here in the extreme.’ (

Arranged triangles (M0102950). Van Flandern: ‘While these triangles might be shadows, the arrangement of so many nearly identical objects in lines and along concentric arcs of circles compels our attention.’ (

Numerous images show ribbed patterns such as these. Some researchers, such as Richard Hoagland ( and Tom Van Flandern (, think they might be glass tubes or tunnel systems. Most scientists believe they are dunes. Mark Carlotto (2008, 134) writes: ‘Nestled inside narrow winding valleys, perhaps they are the fluvial remains of ancient streambeds ...’

Top: ‘Crowned face’, 275.52°W, 2.66°N, ~500 m wide, image M0203051 ( Bottom: Viewed in a broader context, the facial features seem less impressive, as they appear to be integral parts of the larger natural landscape of ridges and slopes (

‘Nefertiti’ (Crater & Levasseur, 2002; (

Avian-looking formation on the northwest rim of the Argyre Basin (48.0°S, 55.1°W). Top: A portion of MGS image S1301480, with the avian feature at the bottom. Bottom: Anatomical features: A) beak; B) cere; C) crest; D) eye; E) primary flight feathers (right wing); F) feather shafts; G) hood line (neck); H) body (folded left wing); I) tongue; J) jaw; K) head; L) abdomen; M) claw; N) foot and toes; O) tarsus joint; P) tibia; Q) tail feathers. The formation is about 2.4 km long from the tip of its ‘beak’ to the tip of its farthest ‘tail feather’ (Dale et al., 2011;;

Elysium pyramids (MGS, 2001). (

Elysium pyramids (Mars Odyssey, 2002).

Elysium pyramid (MGS, 2004).

‘The Ziggurat’ (11.18°N, 195°W), also known as the Cerberus Platform, is another
Elysium pyramid. Resolution: 3 metres/pixel. (courtesy of Keith Laney; image R1800336)

The ‘Runway’ (or ‘String of beads’) is situated on the slopes of Hecates Tholus, an extinct volcano, in the Utopia region of Mars. It is a linear feature running east-west, consisting of a series of conical or pyramidal forms, each about 300 m tall, spaced 300 m apart in a line about 4 km long. It is nestled in a shallow, basin-like depression, and appears to emerge from a slightly depressed area just in front of an escarpment. To the right is a series of three mounds forming a rough ‘bow-tie’ shape, situated in a more well-defined depression. The irregularity visible near the Runway’s mid-section is a remnant of a camera registration mark. Top: Portion of Viking image 86A08. Bottom: Computer-generated perspective view of the Runway. (, 73-7; courtesy of Mark Carlotto)

West Candor Tetrahedron (courtesy of Keith Laney; PSP_002841_1740).

*       *       *

If any objects or features on Mars do turn out to be at least partially the work of intelligent beings, there are several possibilities as to their identity: 1. humans from an ancient technological civilization on earth; 2. native Martians; 3. other extraterrestrials.

Mars seems to have had a more earthlike climate in the past. Scientists believe it would be possible to ‘terraform’ Mars (i.e. make it earthlike again) artificially; this would entail taking measures to increase the density and temperature of the atmosphere, create an ozone layer and increase oxygen levels. From a theosophical perspective, Mars will one day emerge from its hibernation through natural processes alone – but what happens on our physical plane is guided by cyclical processes on inner, subtler, more mind-like levels of reality (see The nature of reality).

Artist’s conception of a terraformed Mars, centred on the
prime meridian and 30° north latitude. (


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Mars: our sleeping neighbour

Life on other worlds