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Washington, January 8, 1998 00:07 a.m. EST
by Michael Woods, Toledo Blade

The mysterious "Face on Mars" is not an optical illusion or a natural feature on the Red Planet, a scientist reported Wednesday at a major astronomical conference. Dr.Tom Van Flandern reached the conclusion after new studies of the Cydonia region, where strange-looking landforms have excited science fiction and life-on-other-worlds buffs for decades. His report, presented at the 191st national meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), attracted unusual attention because sharp new images of the "Face" may soon be available.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Global Surveyor spacecraft, now orbiting Mars, is scheduled to begin imaging in 1999. Global Surveyor's camera is capable of making images with 30 times the resolution, or sharpness, of the Viking cameras. It can distinguish objects as small as 4.6 feet across, and will try to image the "Face." Van Flandern holds a doctorate in astronomy from Yale University. Until 1991, he was chief of the celestial mechanics branch at the U. S. Naval Observatory, a respected astronomy facility. He then founded Meta Research, an organization based here, that fosters research on topics that conflict with mainstream theories in astronomy.

The "Face on Mars," he explained, certainly fits that bill. Some people claim that images of the Cydonia region, taken in the 1970s from the Viking spacecraft, show a gigantic human face, a pyramid, and other structures left by some ancient extra-terrestrial civilization. In the eyes of some, the "Face" bears a striking resemblance to the "death masks" that ancient Egyptians used to adorn the sarcophagus of King Tut and other rulers. Indeed, some hint that the "Face" may be part of an immense tomb on the Red Planet. Believers have come up with all kinds of intricate mathematical relationships between the Face and several associated landforms that supposedly prove the structures are artificial. Conspiracy theories, charging NASA and the military with a cover-up, also abound.

"The conventional view is that this is all nonsense," says Dr. Michael C. Malin. He is chief investigator for the Mars Global Surveyor Orbiter Camera. Cydonia, he explained, is a desert-like region that has undergone the same kinds of weathering that carve weird landforms in terrestrial deserts. He regards the features at Cydonia as strictly natural, the result of Martian weathering and erosion. Van Flandern said his study undermines the main argument against an artificial origin for the "Face:" Its apparently random orientation on the Martian surface. "No apparent purpose is served by a face monument looking upward toward space if it is not oriented right-side up and in an attention getting location with respect to the surface of the planet," he said.

On Earth, one such location, visible for great distances from space, might be right on the equator, he indicated. Van Flandern analyzed data from previous studies showing that the Martian north and south poles occupied a different position in the past. A meteor impact or other cataclysmic event relocated the poles to their current position millions of years ago. He concluded that the "Face" originally was in a much different location. "It was a great shock to me to discover that the Cydonia area was right on the old Martian equator,"he said.

Further analysis showed that the "Face" is oriented perpendicular to that old equator. The bridge of its "nose" is oriented almost exactly north-to-south. "This has only about a 1 percent probability of occurring by chance," Dr. Van Flandern said. "The weight of existing evidence appears to have shifted in favor of an artificial origin of the Cydonia complex." Van Flandern predicted that the Mars Global Surveyor's high-resolution cameras will finally determine whether the "Face" is a natural geologic structure, or something constructed by an earlier civilization. Almost as an afterthought, he observed to a standing room only audience of about 400 astronomers, "I suggest that in view of these test results we prepare ourselves for a cultural shock certainly unrivaled in recent times."