Read an Excerpt
Introduction: Anatomy of an Inquiry
It all started innocently enough.
In 1976, a space probe orbiting Mars took a picture of a formation on the surface of the planet resembling a humanoid face. That first stoic image of the "Face," gazing back at us from the Viking photographs in oracular monochrome, has burned itself into the twenty-first century's collective retina. It's too late to look away.
Although originally dismissed as a meaningless curiosity, the Face on Mars, located in the Cydonia Mensae region, has come to define all that is unknown about our closest planetary neighbor. Is it the signature of an unknown intelligence or simply the work of natural forces?
Perhaps if the Face were a solitary oddity, it could be attributed to chance. But the Face is one of several components in an apparent complex of anomalies. These include what looks like a mile-wide collapsed enclosure (dubbed the "Fort"), two five-sided "pyramids" of breathtaking size, and the "Cliff," a ruler-straight "ramp" that dominates the Cydonian horizon.
As the space probe called Mars Global Surveyor (hereafter called Surveyor or "MGS") continues to take photographs of the Red Planet, new enigmas have come to light: conglomerations of tree-like features, sinuous winding "tunnels" that recall railroad tracks or vacuum trains, and hexagonal formations that dot the planet's uncompromising terrain like terrestrial megaliths.
After the Martian Apocalypse deals with possible extraterrestrial artifacts of inconceivable antiquity. If even a few of the possibilities explored in this book are accurate, the prospects for our own future are explosive. I've attempted to summarize what's known -- and, perhaps more importantly, what's not known -- about a most interesting assortment of objects on the planet Mars: the fourth world from the Sun, our neighbor.
After the Martian Apocalypse is also about the politics of belief, the surreal and contradictory world of "forbidden science," and the highly charged microculture of hobbyist exo-archaeologists that is quietly subverting the landscape of popular science.
Mars, for its enigma, is disquietingly earthlike -- a funhouse mirror of planetary dimensions and mythological scope. It has never ceased to provide the human species with reason for awe, since its appearance as a portentous red dot in the night sky to the first photos taken by robotic orbiters in the twentieth century.
In the early twentieth century astronomer Percival Lowell thought that he saw an intricate network of canals on Mars's surface, and reasoned that Mars was inhabited by a water-impoverished civilization. Famed inventor Nikola Tesla was convinced that he had received radio signals from Mars. Later still, astronomer and computer programmer Jacques Vallee found an apparently nonrandom correlation between UFO flaps and Mars's close approaches with Earth.
Yet by the time the Face on Mars and related anomalies became cultural fixtures in the late twentieth century, Mars had been revealed as a wasted, frozen world. No flame-gushing tripods stalked its rusted dunes and rock-cluttered floodplains. No tribes of tusked, green-skinned warriors patrolled its mysteriously emptied seas.
But the Face rekindled notions of lost cities and ancient astronauts, remnants of an apocalypse. More than a few commentators noted that the Face -- whatever it was -- looked somewhat Egyptian, implying an esoteric terrestrial connection. Were we, ultimately, Martians? Did the Face promise evolutionary insight or was it merely what NASA claimed it was: a geological formation graced by a fortuitous trick of light?
I argue that the Face on Mars represents a fundamentally deeper mystery than mainstream exobiological puzzles, such as the presence of organic magnetite found in a lump of Martian rock in 2000, or the much-discussed but still-theoretical aquatic life on Jupiter's moon Europa. Whether we dismiss the structures of Cydonia as tabloid fodder or devote regular hours to hunting the Web for breaking Martian revelations, it has left an imprint on popular culture and haunted our self-proclaimed skeptical elite.
Cydonia has transfixed us with its riddle, and despite NASA's mantric insistence that the Face is a perfectly natural mesa (or hill, or mountain, or butte, depending on which skeptic one asks), new Mars probes continue to rephotograph Cydonia with compelling results.
Viking frame 35A72 is the most famous image of the "Face on Mars." Courtesy of NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory/California Institute of Technology/Malin Space Science Systems.
In August 2003, Mars veered closer to Earth than it had in sixty thousand years, and for all of a month the heady sense of imminent contact with another world permeated the mass media. Even in harsh city lighting, the planet could be seen as a swollen pink dot in the sky, vigilant and portentous. Exhumed from astronomical textbooks, Mars was suddenly visible in magazines and on television. Thousands of hobbyist astronomers trained their telescopes on the Red Planet, producing detailed color images that were easy rivals for the Hubble Space Telescope's best Martian portraits.
On television and on the Internet, sleekly rendered computer graphics charted the progress of NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers as they crept through the silence of interplanetary space. For the first time since Percival Lowell ignited public interest in space with his description of world-girdling canals more than a century ago, Mars seemed curiously palpable -- less of a scientific abstraction and more of a place, with its own exotic locales and climate.
Dust storms -- vast smears of orange -- flickered across the planet's northern hemisphere. The polar ice caps glittered with the promise of untapped waters. For its beauty, there was something oddly malevolent about Mars's dramatic close-approach. Telescopic images left no doubt that Mars was an eerily Earth-like world. As political leaders and scientists debated the effects of climate change on Earth, Mars cruised through our collective night sky with glacial complacency. As rocket-propelled grenades exploded in the ruins of Baghdad and thousands of people died from record-breaking heat in Europe, Mars, despite its tantalizing proximity, remained mute, inexplicable, content to challenge us with its sheer presence.
We know that celestial events aren't harbingers of doom or catastrophic omens. Nevertheless, Mars's approach seemed weirdly on cue, as if our worst apocalyptic fears had been manifested in the summer sky. The epic gravitational clockwork that governs our solar system brought us face to face with a world that is both a hideous caricature of our own and a silent promise of new landscapes, unfathomable mysteries, and ancient secrets.
In researching this book, I've encountered a galaxy of false claims, grandiose explanations, incomprehensible conspiracy theories, and bad science. For some, the anomalies in Cydonia serve as the pantheon for an embryonic space-age religion; their dogmatic certainty that the Face has to be an extraterrestrial monument rivals the intensity of the space agency's refusal to consider the possibility.
My website, the Cydonian Imperative (mactonnies. com/cydonia.html), was tentatively launched the day NASA released Surveyor's first look at the Face in 1998. I've contacted debunkers, believers, and agnostics of all sorts, including a NASA planetary geologist who mailed me NASA's fact sheet on the Face (dismissing it without reference to any kind of scientific study); an author/lecturer who maintains that NASA's Mars exploration program is merely a public relations ruse to hide otherworldly secrets; and an embittered former aerospace engineer convinced that anyone interested in extraterrestrial artifacts is deluded at best.
The Internet has redefined the way in which space science data is presented to the masses. Forewarned of NASA's plan to reimage the Face in 1998, I spent the night browsing Malin Space Science Systems' (MSSS) website and phoning the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. As dawn broke in the Midwest, I managed to speak briefly with a member of the Surveyor team, who seemed genuinely baffled that I'd been able to locate his office number -- a simple enough task given a modem and NASA's rigorous, and suitably labyrinthine, internal directory.
Over the next few days, two more Cydonia overpasses resulted in high-resolution images of the fabled Cydonia "City," the collection of oddly shaped objects originally discovered by science writer Richard C. Hoagland while examining features in the direct vicinity of the Face. It quickly became obvious that resolving the issue of geology vs. artificiality would not be settled anytime soon; the anomalies under investigation were ancient, battered, and partially buried. If artificial, they were on the verge of receding into the bleak Martian landscape. Yet many observers had already theorized that the City had likely been carved from existing landforms -- possibly by a civilization living in a severely compromised environment.
After the first epistemological clash had run its course, advocates of the Artificiality Hypothesis, which suggests that the enigmas on Mars were constructed by intelligent beings, were left in the absurd position of defending the Cydonia enigmas from self-appointed debunkers who gloated that they couldn't see the "roads" and "stripmalls."
Regardless, the Cydonia inquiry has progressed despite inevitable premature claims from both sides of the debate. Years after the first high-resolution images of the City were downloaded to personal computers across the world, a high-sun-angle frontal portrait of the Face was finally captured, revealing the formation's eastern half in unprecedented detail, in 2001. Among the many treasures of the frontal image is an almond-shaped depression and central conical protuberance -- precisely where an eye should be if the Face is an anthropomorphic sculpture. Further secondary details such as unique "nostrils," "lips," and "brow" reinforce the hypothesis that the Face is something more than an unusual mesa carved by ancient oceans and meteoric sleet.
The possibility that the Face is an artifact of unknown manufacture is simultaneously inspiring and troubling to our perception of life and intelligence in the cosmos. The discoveries on Mars suggest that the human race stands on the threshold of a profound shift in orthodox scientific thought. Inhabitants of a tumultuous and dying world, we consign Cydonia to the fringe, where its implications are, if not completely invisible, at least unthreatening. But this denial is neither wise nor warranted.
Recently, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking stated that the human race would not survive the next thousand years unless it migrated into space. Although his declaration was laughed off by some academics, I suspect his estimate is horrifyingly close to the truth.
Planets die. Mars, frigid and pocked with craters, is catastrophic proof.
The presence of potential extraterrestrial artifacts, still visible after an apparent Martian apocalypse, introduces a fascinating variable into our future as a spacefaring species (unless, of course, we fail to heed Hawking's warning). The ramifications are scientific and existential, cosmic and social.
This book describes who we are in light of such a discovery. It can be read as postmodern anthropology or even as science fiction. But the enigma at its core is very real. Until we know for sure what awaits us on Mars, it is imperative that we address the Cydonia issue with open-minded skepticism, suspending conclusions while daring to speculate in the face of an academic community addicted to baseless condescension.
The Face on Mars is a springboard for fresh thought on extraterrestrial intelligence, challenging the ways in which we perceive eventual contact. The ultimate realization that we are not alone in the universe may be a more disorienting and shocking event than is usually portrayed in our media; simultaneously, it may have more practical hands-on relevance to our society. If the anomalies of Cydonia are artificial, as I think they probably are, then they represent an opportunity for methodical study and a potential fountainhead of paradigm-rattling discovery. This is an opportunity we simply cannot allow ourselves to miss.
In this book, I frequently engage in speculation, synthesizing established facts with various interpretive scenarios. This doesn't mean that I accept fanciful interpretations, by themselves, as evidence. But I maintain that the unprecedented challenge posed by the Face demands an unusual measure of creativity. The many possibilities explored in these pages comprise a sort of Einsteinian thought experiment, justified by the simple fact that the reality behind the Cydonia anomalies is testable.
Any or all of my interpretations may be proven wrong. But until we commit to a long-term program of manned exploration, imagination remains the central tool in our arsenal.
How long will we have to wait until astronauts explore Cydonia? Estimates vary, often wildly. NASA has made continued allusions to 2020 as the year for the US's first manned Mars venture, yet this date is not borne out by the current Mars exploration program. I privately suspect NASA has no real plans to visit Mars in person. This is a disturbing possibility, but not insurmountable. Russia and China have displayed interest in manned Mars exploration, as have private and commercial ventures.
With the right blend of foresight, savvy, and sense of adventure, there is no damning reason a manned Mars mission can't take flight within ten or fifteen years.
Mars is within our reach, if we dare.
Copyright © 2004 by Mac Tonnies