The Viking 1 photo of the Cydonia region in Mars’ northern hemisphere taken in 1976. Cydonia is well known for its mesas, knobs and hills. Credit: NASA
NASA recently released a new photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the infamous "Face of Mars", a 1.2 mile long, 800 foot high hill or mesa in Mars’ Cydonia region. When first photographed by the Viking 1 spacecraft in 1976, the play of light and shadow combined with the camera’s relatively low resolution revealed a remarkably human-like face that resembled that of an Egyptian pharaoh. It was quickly nicknamed the Face of Mars and caught the attention of wishful thinkers, some of whom became convinced it was a monument built by a long-ago Martian civilization. Nearby "pyramids" and other blocky features on the Cydonia plain were even construed as the remains of an ancient Martian city. I still remember routinely seeing the photo of the Face on the cover of the National Enquirer while waiting in the grocery store line. Such is the power of the Red Planet to incite the imagination.
A photo taken of the "Face" by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2007 and recently released. The feature is an eroded mesa 1.2 miles long. Check out the HI-RES version. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona
We see faces all the time. I see them in clouds, floor tiles, patterns of leaves and shadow, in the spots on the backs of beetles — you name it. It’s natural, but we all know there’s no connection to a real face. But when you want to believe or profit from what others believe, you can choose to ignore common sense. A furor developed over the Mars face, books were published by its extraterrestrial-origin defenders and NASA was accused of covering up evidence of intelligent Martian life. When we eventually returned to Mars with new spacecraft and more sophisticated cameras, the Cydonia region and the Face became targets if only to quell the crazy talk.
Now we have exquisite photos of the feature, and the pharaoh’s visage has been replaced by an old, eroding hilltop on a plain that may once have been the bottom of a long-ago Martian ocean. Be sure to click on the hi-res link above (and then click on the image again when you’re there) to appreciate just how much there is to see in this once enigmatic feature.
And now the two faces together. Compare them and you’ll see how easily light and shadow can suggest a face when the lighting conditions are favorable and resolution is poor. Credit: NASA
Looking to the week ahead we have some attractive lunar alignments in the morning sky and planetary ones in the evening. The International Space Station returns for morning sky watchers. Moonless nights in August are the best time to get out and see the complete summertime MIlky Way spanning the sky from one horizon to the other. Sunsets are earlier now also, meaning you — and your kids — can see the stars in a dark sky before bedtime.
Monday August 2 – evening
This all-sky map shows the Milky Way slicing across the sky from below the W of Cassiopeia in the northeast to the Teapot in the south in early August. It looks like a misty rainbow. All maps creating with Stellarium
Wednesday August 4 – before dawn
The waning moon will be only a few degrees to the right of the Seven Sisters or Pleiades star cluster between about 3 a.m. and dawn Wednesday morning. Look to the east to find them. The sight should be especially nice in binoculars.
Friday August 6 – dawn
The International Space Station (ISS) begins making passes again for the Duluth region. This morning’s will be across the south-southeast sky starting at 4:56 a.m. Central time. Watch for a bright, steady light moving eastward. For times for your town, click HERE.
* Saturday August 7 at 5:23 a.m. A brilliant pass high across the south and southeast.
* Sunday August 8 at 4:17 a.m. Bright but low in the southeastern sky
* Monday August 9 at 4:43 a.m. Brilliant across the south
While you’re out sighting the ISS, turn to face east and you’ll get a preview of winter. The crescent moon forms a nearly right triangle with that season’s brightest red stars, Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull and Betelgeuse in Orion the Hunter.
Saturday August 7 – evening
We’ve got a planet party in the west-southwest sky 45 minutes to an hour after sunset. Although they’ll be near one another all week, Mars, Saturn and Venus form their most compact arrangement Saturday evening. Will they all fit together in one binocular field of view? Give it a try to find out.