The Time We Found Pyramids on Mars
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mars has long fascinated people. One of the few objects in the night sky to show a visible color and the only one that wandered, it was a natural draw. As astronomy blossomed and scientists realized that it was another world, visionaries began to speculate about life there.
The first good telescopic observations revealed a world with definite features, areas of light and dark which could be continents and oceans. In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli took advantage of a particularly favorable opposition (when Mars and Earth are on the same side of the Sun, and Mars appears high in the night sky) and drew a map of the planet. In keeping with the belief that the dark regions were oceans, when he saw dark lines across the lighter areas, he dubbed them "canali," Italian for "channels."
Map of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli
Note that although the "rivers" or "canals" are not real, he did see many things that are real -- the Hellas basin is a gigantic impact crater, and the "lake" that he depicts in "Thaumasia felix" is actually the caldera of Olympus Mons.
American astronomer Percival Lowell believed that Schiaparelli had discovered artificial canals. Lowell became a major early proponent for the idea of a complex civilization on Mars. He persisted even when later observers failed to find the canals, demonstrated the likelihood of them being an optical illusion, and even when spectrographic data revealed that Mars was not really a very hospitable place -- cold, dry, and with an atmosphere too thin to maintain liquid water. The idea persisted occasionally in science fiction until 1965, when Mariner 4 flew by Mars.
In its brief flyby, it revealed a Mars that appeared as dead and hostile as the Moon -- barren and pocked with craters. Furthermore, the canals were clearly not present.
Map of Martian Canals by Percival Lowell
Mariner 4 image of Mars, showing moon-like craters
The idea of life on Mars fell largely out of favor as a result of this, but interest in Mars remained. Though the canals were obviously not real, speculation turned from present Martians to Martians past. If there was no civilization now, was it possible there had been in the past? After Mariner 4, Mariners 6 and 7 also flew by, largely confirming the lifeless image. But then that all changed.
Mariner 9 arrived in Mars orbit on November 14, 1971. It was followed within a month by the Soviet probes Mars 2 and Mars 3. On arrival, the probes discovered a Mars transformed: a vast dust storm completely masked the planet. Eventually, the dust settled, revealing a world of wonders previously unseen: staggeringly huge extinct volcanoes, a tremendous canyon system named for the probe (Valles Marineris), dry riverbeds, fog, clouds . . . and something else. On February 8, 1972, Mariner 9 returned an image of what looked an awful lot like pyramids in a region called Elysium Planitia:
Mariner 9 image of Elysium Planitia, showing pyramid-shaped structures
Could it be? Had there really been intelligent life on Mars, which had built pyramids eerily similar to the Egyptian pyramids at Giza? Some other vaguely artificial-looking objects were also observed, and piqued a bit of interest, but none more than the pyramids. That was nothing compared to what would come in 1976, though.
In 1976, two "flagship class" probes arrived at Mars: Viking 1 and Viking 2. Each was an orbiter/lander pair. Their orbiters surveyed the planet in much more detail than Mariner 9 had been able to achieve. In addition to obtaining better resolution images of the pyramids at Elysium Planitia, they also found some more in a region called Cydonia Mensae. As exciting as the first pyramid discovery had been, this really took off in the public imagination, for in addition to what seemed like a complex of pyramids, there was a gigantic face.
The "Face on Mars," photographed by Viking 1; note that the black spots are data loss, not real objects
A consultant at Goddard Space Flight Center happened to see the images and found his fame in them. His name was Richard Hoagland, and he was to become the most ardent proponent of the Face on Mars. He described the pyramids as a buried city, and the Face as a crumbling monument akin to the Sphinx in Egypt.
There was no new data on these features for some time. No new missions were greenlit until Mars Observer, which ended in disaster when the probe suddenly ceased transmitting shortly before orbital insertion. It wasn't until September 12, 1997, that a new spacecraft arrived at Mars: Mars Global Surveyor. It eventually imaged both Elysium and Cydonia, and the results were disappointing for anyone hoping to find evidence of life, although many refused to give up the faith. Mars Odyssey 2001, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have mapped the planet in ever increasing detail, and the features have proven to be disappointingly natural.
Elysium pyramid, photographed by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
It does look like a pyramid, doesn't it? But then, so does this:
Even if there aren't really alien-built structures on its surface, Mars still conceals a lot of mysteries. It boasts the largest volcanoes in the solar system by a huge margin, and also the largest canyon. It is smaller than Earth, but has the same land surface area as Earth's continents. It has weather, including dust devils and gigantic dust storms. It has ice caps made of a mixture of water ice and frozen carbon dioxide, and water not only flowed in the past, but appears to be sometimes able to flow in the present as well. And who knows? Perhaps by the end of the century, some of us will be living there. And then we can build our own pyramids!
Note: Some of you may have seen the Doctor Who serial "Pyramids of Mars," featuring Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen as they combat animated mummies and a vengeful Egyptian god. The serial ended with a final battle under the pyramids of Mars. More on that episode and other Doctor Who stories ripped from the headlines here.