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Since the first photograph was sent back from the surface of Mars back in 1976, conspiracy theorists and UFO hunters have been poring over the growing mass of images released by NASA.
They’ve been hoping that they might find signs of life, or perhaps a relic of a long-dead alien civilisation. So far, all that anyone has seen for certain is mile upon mile of cold, dry desert.
But that hasn’t stopped them hoping. A combination of wishful thinking and a strange quirk of human psychology has led to a number of false alarms over the years.
The most famous Martian false alarm is probably The Face, spotted in the Cydonia region in the Red Planet’s northern hemisphere.
NASA hides secret message on Mars Perseverance rover parachute
Images from the Viking 1 orbiter taken on July 25, 1976 showed what looked very much like a stylised mile-wide human face, staring out endlessly at the blackness of space.
Author Richard D Hoagland, who is a staunch believer in lost extraterrestrial civilisations, says there’s more to it than just a face.
“There is an exquisite geometrical and mathematical system that connects the complex, which I call the ‘city,’ a pyramid to the south of it …the ‘face’ itself, and an object which lies about twenty-five miles on the other side of it which is a funny-looking wall on the edge of a crater and appears to be a perfect backdrop."
He concluded: “This is a blatantly intelligently designed complex.”
But, disappointingly, higher-resolution images from the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the ESA’s Mars Express reveal that the enigmatic rock structure may be a remarkable mountain, but its “human” features were merely a trick of the light.
It’s by no means the only face on Mars. Scott C. Waring from UFO Sightings Daily claims to have spotted another monolithic structure which he believes is the tomb of a woman with a sculpture of her on top: “It shows a face and head turned to its right, with breasts and a plump stomach, shoulders.
“Very remarkable detail in this photo,” he wrote in 2014. “This photo alone should be enough to convince the United Nations that intelligent life once existed on Mars, but NASA doesn't want anyone to know the truth, because they will be asked to share the info and technology that they have found.”
Paying little attention to the punishingly cold Martian weather, a woman in a skimpy dress was wandering around the deserts of Mars in May 2015.
Disappointingly when Curiosity took a photo from a different angle one of its wheels came into shot, revealing that the “woman” was no more than a few inches high.
It is of course possible that Martians have been so hard to find so far because they’re very, very small.
Speaking at the time, NASA’s Guy Webster, who handles media requests related to Mars exploration told CNet: "It's really easy to pick out rocks or other things that look like something else in pictures like this,"
Statues have been hitting the headlines on Earth lately, but on Mars they’re old news. Allen “truthers’ claim to have seen a statue of a human being in snaps taken by the space agency’s robot rover Opportunity.
Commenting under a video of the bizarre artefact posted on YouTube, one believer wrote: “(It) looks like an actual statue. There seem to be so many anomaly stones on Mars that at some point, one must admit that sometimes a rock is an ancient artefact.”
People also claim to have spotted coffins, thigh-bones, and most magnificently Bigfoot – who seems to have taken time out from patrolling the American pacific North West.
YouTubers Paranormal Crucible, announcing their discovery of the “secret” image published online said by NASA: “Mars does indeed have the ability to sustain exotic life forms.
“With all the images released so far by NASA we can clearly state that life does appear to exist on the red planet.”
It’s not always human-like figures. In 2017, UFO hunters spotted what they say is was a flying saucer that has touched down on the Martian surface. Just this week, they claimed that the image was deleted from NASA's database.
The image, beamed back from NASA’s Curiosity rover, could well show a piece of a spacecraft – but it’s far more likely to be a piece of débris from Curiosity’s entry vehicle rather than visitors from another galaxy who have stopped off for a picnic on their way to Roswell.
Neuroscientist Dean Burnett explained that the phenomenon of seeing patterns that aren’t there, known properly as pareidolia, is hard-wired into the human brain.
“Our brains have evolved to look for patterns,” he told the Daily Star.
”To work out what's significant and what isn't. It makes evolutionary sense; when you're a jungle creature, if the leaves and grass are suddenly all moving in one direction, that suggests there's a tiger in there, so it's important for survival. If you see a green bush but there are a lot of red spots on it, that suggests berries, fruit, food, so it's good for survival.”
But as the brain has evolved to become more powerful, it can sometimes “over reach” and see patterns that aren’t there.
This is particularly true for faces, Dean says. Because communication is so closely linked to facial expression we’ve even developed a specific area of the brain called the fusiform face gyrus that deals with faces, or things that look like faces.
And sometimes it works just a bit too well: “ This means that we're very prone to seeing faces where there clearly aren't any, like in burnt toast or the patterns of wood.
"It's just a coincidental arrangement of shades and colours, but if it happens to be arranged in a layout suggestive of a face, our brains are very keen to see it as such. It's what they've evolved to do.”
So next time you see a face on Mars, or Jesus hiding in potato you got from Aldi. Don’t worry about it. You’ve just evolved a bit too much.
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