WASHINGTON -- A Martian mesa bearing an eerie resemblance to a human face is reviving the age-old debate about life on the red planet.
Calling themselves a "rebel alliance," a small group of scientists and futurists said yesterday that the mesa -- a mile long and about 1200 feet high -- provides evidence that an ancient, human-like civilization [sic] may have built monuments on the Martian surface.
NASA has rejected the idea, however, and a planetary geologist associated with NASA said it would be next to impossible to test experimentally. A planned unmanned mission to Mars in 1992 is likely to study the region where the "face" appears, however.
Features within a few miles of the face resemble a five-sided pyramid and a fort, said Richard Hoagland, an author and former science consultant to television networks and planetariums.
The arrangement of these and other features suggest they operated as a kind of celestial observatory to observe sunrises on summer solstices a half-million years ago, Hoagland told reporters.
"It implies -- it doesn't prove, but it implies -- that we are dealing with something on the order of conscious design," he said.
The group, called the Mars Project, is urging manned Mars missions to study the possibility an ancient civilization once existed there. That would be "perhaps the most important discovery in human history," Hoagland said.
Why a half-million-year-old martian structure would look human is uncertain, he conceded, but perhaps indicates that extra-terrestrial intelligence often takes a human-like form. Or perhaps those who shaped the mesa knew earthly humans "would someday have the intelligence to find such a message," he said.
Officially, NASA has dismissed the Martian "face" as a trick of light and shadow.
When the image of the mesa was first received in 1976, a NASA scientists reportedly quipped, "There's the guy who built the canals," a reference to claims by the early 20-th century astronomer Percival Lowell that canals visible on the Martian surface were signs of advanced civilization.
The canals eventually were found to be optical illusions.
The Mars Project scientists say recent computer imaging based on the Viking photographs indicates the mesa has the structure of a human-like face.
"It may turn out to be a mesa that was sculpted," said Mark Carlotto, a computer engineer with the Analytic Sciences Corp. in Reading, Mass.
Carlotto said his own computer-enhanced imagery indicates that the mesa in fact would look like a face in any light and from any vantage point, suggesting it is a constructed structure and not a geological accident.
Other scientists are sceptical.
"I bet there are no reputable planetary geologists in this (Mars Project) group," noted Stephen Maran, a spokesman for the American Astronomical Society.
Yet the Mars Project does include Brian O'Leary, an astronomer who was once in NASA's corps of astronauts, but no geologist.
"It isn't science, it's public relations," said Michael Malin, a geologist with Arizona State University. Malin is developing a camera for NASA that will take high-resolution photographs of Mars aboard the Mars Observer, scheduled to be launched in 1992.
Malin said that mission would attempt to photograph the region of the face, in part because of interest in the feature within the planetary sciences community and in part because "the whole area is (geologically) interesting."
But he criticized the Mars Project scientists for not developing specific tests that could prove or disprove their hypothesis [see postarticle Papers, in RESEARCH].
Randolfo Pozos, an anthropologist with the Mars Project, conceded that the human brain has a natural tendency to see faces in natural objects, but said that didn't rule out the possibility the face was in fact sculpted.
Despite the implications of ancient astronauts or extraterrestrial civilizations, "we're trying to avoid the New Age movement" in discussing the unusual Martian features, Pozos said. He said the group has turned away callers who said their past lives on Mars might be helpful in understanding the features.