WASHINGTON -- Photographic analysis of a formation on Mars resembling a giant human face led some scientists to speculate Thursday that it may have been made by intelligent beings.
Scientists with the Mars Project, a private group in Alameda, Calif., said image processing of television photos taken by the Viking orbiter in 1976 are so tantalizing that more missions to the area are needed.
They said they have shown their findings to officials in the Soviet Union and asked them to take more detailed pictures of the "face" with their Phobos probes. On Thursday, the Soviets launched the first of two unmanned probes to Mars and its moon Phobos that will pick out sites for a possible manned Mars landing.
The original Viking photographs of the Cydonia region of Mars were of relatively poor resolution and only picked up details larger than 150 feet across. The photos show half of a face-like formation in sunlight, exposing a depression that resembles one eye socket, a nose-like ridge and half a mouth-like depression. The formation, about a mile long and 1500 feet high, appears to be aligned with a collection of pyramid-like objects to the southwest.
Mark Carlotto, an optical engineer who used computer technology to enhance the photographs, concluded in an article in Applied Optics that the formations appear to have been carved by "intelligent design" and not by random forces of nature.
Carlotto said at a press conference with the Mars Project representatives that a sophisticated statistical study of the shapes, compared with other outcroppings on Mars, shows that "the face is not natural."
"It's extremely unlikely that it's a trick of light and shadow," Carlotto said.
When two National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineers first wrote about the unusual feature in 1982, their observations, published independently of the space agency, drew sharp criticism from most planetary scientists who regarded the "face" as a product of light and shadow on a natural geographic feature.
Charles Redmond, a NASA spokesman, said Thursday the space agency is not opposed to taking more pictures of the formation and said the region will be rephotographed by the U.S. Mars Observer, scheduled for launch in 1992.
But, "NASA considers the formation a result of wind forces working martian soil. There is no evidence to show it is other than natural," he said.
The U.S. Mars Observer will be able to resolve details as small as about 3 feet across, Mars Project officials said.
Richard Hoagland, a former NASA consultant who founded the Mars Project, said his calculations show the face and the pyramid-like objects are aligned with the sun during the Mars summer solstice every 1 million years -- with the last such period occuring about 500,000 years ago.
While he acknowledged the alignment "could be totally coincidental," he said he thinks "it implies we are dealing with something on the order of conscious design."
Hoagland said the complex, which he calls a city, includes a fivesided mountain that resembles a pyramid, a grouping of rocks that he said could be a fortress and a mountain mass that he believes could have been part of an astronomical marker.
Randolfo Pozos, the executive director of the Mars Project, said the 200 members of the organization are divided about the origin of the face on Mars.
"Some of our group feels this is a lost civilization," he said. "Others think it is just an interesting geologic [sic] formation."
The launch of the Soviet Phobos probe Thursday marked the emergence of the Soviet Union as a major force in the planetary sciences, a field once dominated by the U.S., and was the opening salvo in a series of missions to Mars, which Soviet scientists hope will lead to a manned expedition to the red planet by the year 2010.
The spacecraft is to reach Mars around January 25, 1989, and in early April it is to send two landers to Phobos, thus becoming the first manmade devices to reach another celestial body in more than a decade.
The rocket is to be followed by the launch of a companion spacecraft July 12 in keping with Soviet policy of doing everything in duplicate. If all goes well with the first spacecraft, the second can be diverted to other chores at Mars.
The potato-shaped Phobos, scarcely 15 miles in diameter, has long fascinated scientists because it appears to be on the brink of being torn apart by Mars gravity.