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The First Real Evidence of Life on Mars
by John O'Neill

Click on any of the covers below for a larger image.

The Martian Rover
PASADENA, California (Newswire) - NASA peeled back the veil on one of its most secretive projects this week, with a long-awaited report on the Martian Biosphere Project.

"We're glad to finally get this out in the open," said James R. Galveton, senior administrator for the project. "This isn't the kind of thing you like to sit on for long."

All the fuss is about a new set of images relayed to earth by the Mars Global Surveyor on Thursday of last week, and just now released to the public. The images are of the Martian surface, and specifically of the Galle Crater on the eastern side of a basin called Argyre Planitia.

Mars Global Surveyor,
(Courtesy JPL/Caltech)
"The real story, of course, is how we knew where to look," says Dr. Galveton. "One of the high priority objectives for the Mars Global Surveyor was to photograph a sub-section of the Martian southern hemisphere. The co-ordinates for the actual target area were quite precise, but we photographed a wide target range just to be safe. Frankly, we had hopes of finding something concrete in the nearby vicinity, but what we found was not only astonishing, but it was absolutely, precisely at the target area."

Knowing Where To Look

The instructions on exactly where this astonishing find lay waiting came from an unlikely source -- a studied interpretation of an unusual rock formation near the so-called "Martian Face," perhaps the most famous (and certainly one of the most recognized) part of the Martian landscape.

The Martian Face
In July, 1976, the Viking Orbiter 1 was acquiring images of the Cydonia region of Mars in search for potential landing sites for Viking Lander 2. On 25 July, 1976, it photographed a region of buttes and mesas along an escarpment near relatively crater-free, lowland plains in the north. Nestled among the hills was an unusual structure resembling a face. After some internal debate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the image of the face-like hill was released as part of JPL's public relations effort. It has since become one of the most famous extraterrestrial images ever taken, as a variety of fringe groups have seized on the existence of the face as proof of everything from life on Mars to UFOs, Atlantis, and many things in between.

"Publicly, we were forced to downplay the furor surrounding the image," admits Galveton. "A very sophisticated computer analysis of the structure in 1981 revealed nothing of real note. However, the same couldn't be said of the formation directly southeast of the structure."

Region Around the Face
There's little unusual about any of the terrain surrounding the face, at least to the naked eye. This fact prevented any serious analysis of the surrounding regions until a routine computer tomography scan of the whole area was performed in 1986 by the U.S. Geological Survey, done in the hopes of getting a better understanding of flood plain formation here on Earth.

"The formation southeast of the structure popped up in every analysis done," explains Galveton. "To put it bluntly, it shouldn't have been there. It was too striated to be tectonic in nature, and had entirely the wrong aspect for impact ejecta. U.S.G.S. brought it to our attention in 1983, and we began a serious analysis on 1985. Nothing came up until we looked closely at displacement ratios with respect to the Face."

"To put it simply, the displacement ratios were just too clean," elaborates Mark Beltman, a geophysicist with the Martian Biosphere Project. "No matter how you looked at them -- distance, mass, even rotation -- the two structures had the exact same set of ratios, all whole numbers to within four decimal places. Those ratios corresponded exactly to a set of co-ordinates in the Argyre Planitia basin on the far side of Mars."

The Dark Side of Mars

Seeing what was at those co-ordinates was easier said than done, however. Not only is it extremely difficult to resolve Martian terrain with any detail from an Earth-bound telescope, the co-ordinates were also in the so-called Dark Side of Mars, that portion of the planet which very rarely faces the Earth, and only then in deep shadow.

Enter the Mars Global Surveyor. Managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the MGS was launched in 1996 and reached Mars in September 1997. It was scheduled to photograph the target area within a week of achieving Mars orbit, but was prevented due to a long delay in achieving the proper orbit. This week it finally began its main science mission of mapping the Martian surface. It began with the co-ordinates in the Argyre Planitia basin.

"Some of us have been waiting over a decade for these images," Galveton said at the noon news conference. "I believe they'll have the same impact on those who are told of their existence for the first time today."

The Martian Happy Face
The eerie photos of the Galle Crater on the eastern side of Argyre Planitia are indeed striking. The scale of the figure alone is imposing -- the circular crater extends over 134 miles (216 kilometers), and its eyes and mouth are formed from carefully placed rock fragments. The picture has a bluish-white tone caused by wintertime frost, according to Malin Space Science Systems Inc., which operates Surveyor's camera from San Diego and released the pictures.

"Beyond a doubt, this is the clearest evidence we've had yet of intelligent life on Mars," notes Dr. Galveton. "Just as importantly, the first reports on ratio analysis of the crater and the larger Argyre Planitia basin now point to a new set of co-ordinates, these ones just inside the orbit of Jupiter. As you can imagine, we're tremendously excited."

"Work is already underway to send an expedition to the new set of co-ordinates," adds Mark Beltman. "The only designs that will do the job require a matter-antimatter drive, which has caused a number of problems due to the difficulty in bottling anti-matter. We're currently exploring a drive which runs on pasta and anti-pasta, and the results are hopeful."

John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the founder of the SF Site. He spent two summers on Mars in the late eighties, and reports that it's much colder than the brochures let on. His days recently have been filed with small aliens of a very different sort.

Copyright © 1999 by A. John O'Neill

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