Emoticons Invade Mars

Reading Natural Graffiti

Mars Global Surveyor
Artist impression of the Mars Global Surveyor. Credit: NASA/JPL

Light and shadow can play tricks with any geological formation, particularly in cropped imagery that can make any terrain eventually look like some kind of ‘smiley face’. The Cydonia region on Mars –and its accompanying Face on Mars image– is legendary in this regard; it has been compared to a martian face eroded over time like an Egyptian Sphinx and has even become a troublesome diversion in the earliest science targeting for the Mars Global Surveyor.

The latest entry in this game of reading geological hieroglyphs is notable however, in actually spelling out a message: "Hi".

Although one might argue that most of the "i" is missing, and part of the "h" has been eroded away, the October 12th image of "Hi" glyphs was photographed from orbit, by the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC).

The image shows light-toned sedimentary rock outcrops in northern Sinus Meridiani that almost seem to spell out the word, "hi". This natural graffiti is all that remains of a suite of sedimentary rock that once covered the area shown here.

Is this a case of the internet serving up its first interplanetary versions of emotional icons, or "emoticons"?

Oblique view of crater ring, sometimes whimsically called the "Happy Face" crater.

No longer must one speculate about the intentions of a secret, subterranean fortress operating beneath an ancient Mars’ face. Now the intentions are clear (at least assuming the hieroglyph is communicating to an English-speaking terrestrial audience).

No longer must one wonder if the intention is friendly or hostile. The rocks on Mars are welcoming our cameras.

The "Hi" rock formation joins the "Happy Face" crater and the circular Inca City–each a view from above that shows a whimsical side to remote sensing.

In some ways, the high-jinx centers on finding a Goldilocks’ balance between vivid language and precise scientific terms.

Arizona planetary scientist and painter, Bill Hartmann, put some historical perspective on the discussion, "I think the mania for "neutral" and often "cute" names is beginning to be more destructive than helpful."

Hartmann said: "As my archaeologist wife commented recently, the appealing story about Mars is that it is so Earth-like, but the proliferation of strange sounding geologic names for surface textures, like ‘chaotic terrain,’ ‘fretted terrain,’ and so on, leads the public to perceive Mars as ever more alien and non-understandable."

"This was started with a vengeance during the the Mariner 9 imaging team interpretations in the early 1970s, in which I was involved," continued Hartmann. "But it’s gotten out of hand! Not to mention the 25 year absurdity of the "’face on Mars,’ a whimsical name that got completely out of control, with the ‘face on Mars‘ buffs claiming NASA purposely aborted the Mars Observer mission to hide the truth, and later requiring our Mars Global Surveyor team to drop its science plan, reorient the spacecraft, and waste tax dollars to get images of the ‘face’ as one of the first activities of the mission."


Cydonia region, showing the effects of sun position on shadows cast across the "Mars Face". Credit: NASA/JPL/MOC

There is a serious question buried somewhere in the hieroglyphic interpretations. How does one approach a biological signature when visual or instrumental ambiguities cloud the data? As the principal science investigator on the European Beagle 2 mission, Colin Pillinger, described earlier biological experiments: "It wasn’t that Viking didn’t find life, it was that they thought the conditions were just so horrid, so harsh, nobody anticipated that life could exist there."

The Mars’ program has structured a series of missions to take on the major questions of water history first, continuing with later follow-ups to make a comprehensive investigation of how water might interact with any remnant biochemistry. Harvard’s Andy Knoll described this staged approach to Astrobiology Magazine as a methodic testing of hypotheses against each other: "A couple of years ago, NASA embarked on a funding campaign to essentially try and anticipate any kind of suggestively biological signature that might be found in any kind of exploration of another planet so that we wouldn’t be seen to be scratching our heads. But the plain fact is that you can’t anticipate anything you might see…I actually like the whole architecture of NASA’s plan to go one step at a time, do each step carefully, and in step two build on what you learned in step one. It makes sense."

The 2009 Mars Science Laboratory is planned as the first set of biological experiments in the current exploration strategy. As the NASA Office of Space Science noted however, there has been considerable debate about when to time a sample return: "We note with concern that there appears to be a growing division within the Mars community between scientists seeking early Mars Sample Return and those who believe it is best to delay it."

As principal investigator Steve Squyres described the team’s public profile: "We’re letting the science hang out there for everyone to see. We risk letting people think we’re confused, but hey, science is really like that. It’s exciting and we don’t have all the answers. That’s why we do it."