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Measuring Artificiality

Measuring Artificiality - The Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts and the Face on Mars

“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.”
- “Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs”, Brookings Institution Final Report, 1961

In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1948 short story “The Sentinel” an artifact is discovered on the Moon. A tetrahedral structure made of a polished mineral and surrounded by spherical force-field, The Sentinel is suggested by the story’s narrator to have been created by an extra-terrestrial civilisation, perhaps as a warning beacon for passing space-farers.

The idea of discovering alien artifacts was not limited to the realm of science fiction. Shortly after the NASA was formed, a Washington DC based think tank, The Brookings Institute, while considering the implications of the fledgling space program, suggested that the exploration of our solar system may reveal this type of evidence of intelligent life.

In 1950 radio astronomer Frank Drake at the Green Bank observatory in West Virginia, had begun the first systematic attempt to detect artificial radio signals. Listening to two nearby Sun-like stars, epsilon Eridani and tau Ceti, he began what would eventually become the SETI program. In 1960 however, an alternative to interstellar radio communication was proposed by engineer Ronald Bracewell who suggested that extraterrestrial civilisations may send space probes for the purpose of conveying a message.

Many had proposed that mathematical principles would be used as the language of the message simply because it avoids the problem of requiring invented or learned language. This principle was revisited by Arthur C Clarke and film director Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, this time with the artefact as a black cuboid whose edges conformed to the ratios of the squares of 1, 2 and 3.

While recognising mathematical signatures in pristine (recent) artifacts may seem straightforward enough; add to the issue the more likely scenario of discovering ancient objects and the nature of decay of materials over time becomes a factor – as ordered matter heads back towards its natural state of disorder.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Artefacts, or S.E.T.A. as it is known, requires that investigators address the question “how would we know” if a structure had been intelligently caused. This applies to all candidate S.E.T.A. objects – potential artificial signals in any form such as physical constructions, artifacts in the in the electromagnetic spectrum (the methodology of S.E.T.I.) and even in the search for informatic artifacts within the DNA of organisms here on Earth.

Here however, we will look at the infamous case of the enigmatic landforms on the Cydonia Mensae plain on Mars.

“Tricks of light and shadow”

It was a project scientist for NASA’s Viking mission, 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 of 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

It seemed that no one else at NASA had investigated the image so Vincent and his colleague Gregory Molenaar attempted to enhance the image quality themselves. 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 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 1976 press conference where “the Face” was first made public, Gerry Soffen had stated that another picture taken several hours later had shown the object to be only an ordinary mesa. DiPietro and Molenaar realised that this statement 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 of the Cydonia region was taken 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 had been a member of the press during Gerry Soffens original announcement in 1976. Five years later he met with DiPietro and Molenaar at The Case for Mars conference in Boulder, Colorado. 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”.

Independent Mars Investigation Team

Hoagland formed the Independent Mars Investigation Team in 1983 bringing together experts in the fields of image analysis, geology and anthropology 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”.

NASA Scientists Respond:

• “What could you possibly do with these images that NASA hasn’t already done?” – Chris McKay (NASA Planetary Scientist) to Richard Hoagland

•  “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

Measuring Artificiality

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 or a tree whose branches form similar recognisable patterns over different scales. 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 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 U.S. Defence Mapping Agency, joined DiPietro and Molenaar in studying the “D&M Pyramid” that they found to the southwest of “the Face”. Torun, who was trained as a geologist, considered various natural explanations for the strange geomorphology of the object.

The landform being about 1 km high precluded the possibility that water flow could have created the structure. Erosion by wind driven sand or ice is known to cause three sided formations (called ventifacts) on both Earth and Mars. “The Pyramids of Elysium”, named by Carl Sagan, are examples of natural three sided pyramid shaped hills on Mars created by wind erosion. However the “D&M pyramid” has five sides. Four or five sided ventifacts are unheard of on Earth or elsewhere on Mars. Torun also eliminated mass wasting (commonly seen on Mars), volcanism and even large crystal growth as possible natural causes.

In Torun’s words “the geomorphological processes observed to exist on Mars not only fail to provide a potential mechanism for the D&M Pyramid's formation, but seem to preclude its very existence”

Not only that but the object appeared to be orientated with its internal edges pointing to the “the City”, “the Face” and another anomalous object known as “the Tholus”. The D&M was interwoven in a relationship with other anomalous landforms that demonstrated the repeated appearance of the angle 19.5°.

Tetrahedral Geometry

Torun began to look at mathematical relationships within the dimensions of the “D&M Pyramid”. The object clearly had experienced extensive erosion and some edges and corners were not clearly defined in the images. He therefore used a geometric reconstruction of the shape of the “D&M Pyramid” to base his relationship measurements.

He found that the internal angles between the base and edges, and the trigonometric functions of these angles of his model 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, and the square roots of 2, 3 and 5. Torun’s model of the Pyramid was also 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.”

They also found that ratio of lengths of two of its internal dimensions was close to the Golden Ratio - a relationship that shows up repeatedly in growth patterns in nature: (1 + √5)/2 = 1.61803. It was also pointed out to Hoagland that the latitude of the “D&M Pyramid” 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 mathematical message. The redundant use of the angle of 19.5° in the Cydonia complex hinted at a signal within the data. In mathematics the angle 19.47° is the tetrahedral angle. A tetrahedron is a platonic solid with a four equally sized triangular faces. If you place a tetrahedron within a sphere with each vertex touching the sphere and with one corner touching the top of the sphere, then remaining three corners touch the surface of the sphere at a point 19.47° below the sphere’s equator. This is a circumscribed tetrahedron. A shape strangely enough, conforming exactly to the description of “The Sentinel” in Arthur C Clarke 1948 novel.

Some planetary scientists such as Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) – the NASA contractor that controls the orbiter cameras – 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”. Some edges and angles in Torun’s model, which is based on Viking imagery, do not correspond well with the object. However, decay of the object away from its original form would be expected when it has been 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):

“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 publically at least NASA remained uninterested.

Extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence

Astronomer Carl Sagan denounced the claims of potential artificiality on Cydonia claiming that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Aside from his statement being contrary to the scientific method, it is ambiguous and philosophically meaningless. The use of this sort of language is quite simply as a ruse to add weight to an argument. A scientist of Sagan’s stature should have been well aware that his statement was a fallacy.

• “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

The McDaniel Investigation

In 1993, seventeen years after the NASA’s Viking Orbiter took the controversial images, another NASA spacecraft approached Mars. Political pressure was applied to NASA via congress in order to set mission priorities to include reimaging Cydonia. Professor 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.”

Three days after Professor Stanley McDaniel’s 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 fought a political battle to get Cydonia re-imaged by the next mission. Despite claims by Michael Malin of MSSS 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.”

Thomas Van Flandern makes the scientific case

Prior to the arrival of the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft Astronomer Thomas van Flandern laid out a scientific test for artificiality of the Face on Mars. All Viking images were a posteriori (after the fact) and no reliable conclusions can be drawn from data that is already known. However, the Viking 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 species (humanoid means “human-like”), 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 Mars Global Surveyor 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. A posteriori 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 were:
• 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 (i.e., 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 showed secondary facial features that could not be seen in the earlier Viking imagery of the Face. Features did 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

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 and 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 “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 unreal.

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 that these S.E.T.A. candidate objects on the surface of Mars may really be artificial, but it also would show the gross errors made by NASA in both its own reasoning and overt disinterest in the question of the artificiality of objects on the surface of another planet.

2001 Mars Odyssey Mission

In 2002 NASA released multispectral images of “the Face” taken immediately before dawn, with the sun still below the horizon. The image taken on October 24th 2002, showed the eastern-side of “the Face” and a part of the “D&M Pyramid”. Remarkably the two objects demonstrated very high light reflectivity. The actual spacecraft photometry data was not released to the public at the time so independent researchers were left to estimate the actual reflectivity by other less accurate means.

Richard Hoagland, using an image created by Keith Laney from three of the 2001 Mars Odyssey visible light frames, determined that the reflectivity of “the Face” and the partially visible eastern side of the “D&M Pyramid” were reflecting upward of 99% of the surface illumination – in stark contrast to the other mounds nearby and the surrounding Cydonia plain.

With potential S.E.T.A. objects on the Cydonia plain pointing tantalisingly to a potential message relating to the geometry of the tetrahedron, just how did the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sir Arthur C. Clarke,  “predict” a space-programs discovery of a circumscribed tetrahedron behind it all in a much early novel? Perhaps there is more to the naming of NASA’s 2001 Odyssey mission that we first suspect? Did these conceptual coincidences between Clarke’s imagination and the mathematics of the Cydonia complex itself arise out of sheer chance?

The Media & Mars Anomalies Research

As we look at the work of the Independent Mars Investigation Team in their attempts to determine artificiality on Mars, and the work of NASA in obfuscating their efforts throughout, we should also consider at what level, if any, obfuscation continues.

In July 2010 the Daily Mail reported that the “New high-resolution photo of the 'Face on Mars' proves Red Planet's most famous landmark is just a rocky hill”. The NASA’s HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had taken the highest resolution image ever taken of “the Face”. However no scientific analysis has ever been published refuting the artificially hypothesis for either “the Face” or the Cydonia complex as a whole. Instead, the article like many similar articles, follows Carl Sagan’s approach to discrediting the work by associating it with concepts that readers will immediately consider silly and not worthy of note.

The article begins with a close-up image of a small part of “the Face” – an image that does not look like a recognisable face. However, if you look at any hominid face, real or illusory (i.e. an artistic rendering intended to look like a face) you will find that it only appears face-like at a particular range of scales. Too close you simply see surface material, too far out and it gets lost in the background.

The issue here is that “the Face” is a rocky hill. Mount Rushmore too is a rocky hill – one that has intelligent design written all over it. The artificiality hypothesis of “the Face” proposes that the object is a form of art – and thus it is not assumed to be a “real” face at all. While the media can be forgiven for their ignorance in this field it is ultimately NASA and their contractors who should be held responsible for their failure to correct erroneous statements made by journalists on this issue. 

It is clear that with the new wave of Mars anomalies investigators making all sorts of unverifiable claims that also make a prominent appearance in the mainstream media – we have to wonder whether this is not part of a continuing effort to negate the impact of other well-founded and scientifically supported SETA research. While “artifact-spotting” in Mars rover images is for some just a bit of fun we should remember firstly “how we would know” that something it artificial and secondly how aberrant speculation may in fact be detrimental to the high quality work of other SETA researchers.

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

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

Anthony Beckett lives near Keighley, West Yorkshire. He studied Chemistry at Loughborough University graduating in 1997 and continuing his studies with a M.Sc. in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Huddersfield in 1998. He went on to work in the Pharmaceutical Industry as a Analytical Scientist until 2006. He is currently a software engineer and in his spare time he is the executive producer of Exopolitics Great Britain, an organisation which has been hosting the UK’s UFO Disclosure and Exopolitics Conferences since 2009.

© Anthony Beckett 2013