It certainly looks like a face -- this massive rock formation staring skyward from the surface of Mars.
Could it be a tribute from some ancient Martian civilization to the unfathomable forces above? Is it Mars' answer to the Egyptian pyramids or the Mayan temples? Is it the long-awaited evidence of life on that cold, ancient planet?
Gregory R. Molenaar, a Bethesda computer scientist who recently developed the pictures with his coworker, Vincent DiPietro, through a special computer program, would certainly like to think so.
He has plastered the pictures across the front door of his home and placed them along his living room mantel, in positions of prominence equal to those of his daughter. He and DiPietro, a Sykesville scientific engineer, refuse to proclaim that they have found evidence of life on Mars, but they have made several suggestions in that direction.
"Perhaps there were beings that carved it out," Molenaar said, pointing to details in the face. It has what appears to be gaping eye sockets, a pug nose, a slit of a mouth and a headdress comparable to that of an ancient Mayan god.
Molenaar and DiPietro developed the pictures from film shot by the Viking satellite orbiter in 1976. They did it in their off-hours, while working for a contractor on a National Aeronautics and Space Administration computer project.
They have since passed the pictures around to many of their contacts at NASA, but so far, none of the scientists who viewed the pictures attributes them to anything more profound than a fluke angle of sunlight hitting rock formations on the Mars surface. Near the mile-high "face," there are several other formations that Molenaar and DiPietro believe to be pyramids.
"It just looks weird, but many things look weird. That doesn't mean they are weird," said Dr. James Ionson, a Goddard astrophysicist. "We scientists like to keep an open mind, but we have to buffer that with a bit of common sense."
Ionson is sponsoring a presentation of the picture by Molenaar and DiPietro at the American Astronomical Society, but he stressed that he is most interested in the method of reproducing and enhancing the films rather than in the images.
Most of the scientists interviewed attributed the unusual image to a fluke caused by the angle of the sunlight hitting the rocks. If that means there is a face on the surface of Mars, then there is also a man in the moon and a man in the mountain, several of them said.
Despite the doubters among the scientists, Molenaar said he and DiPietro hold out hope that the pictures point to evidence of ancient Martian civilization -- perhaps the first great strike in Martian archaeology.
He stressed that he and his partner are not space scientists, though, and so cannot proclaim anything definitive about the discovery.
One of the scientists who would most like to find some evidence of life on Mars is Dr. Gerald Soffen, director of life sciences for NASA.
He said yesterday the Molenaar-DiPietro pictures do not provide that evidence.
Soffen, the project scientist for the Viking orbiter at the time of the 1976 pictures, said he and his team scrutinized every picture returned by the satellite for possible evidence of civilized life.
He and other scientists spotted the face-like formation at the time, Soffen said, and passed photogrpahs of it around as a joke. CAPTION: Picture, Two computer scientists hope the face on Mars will be the start of a great discovery. Scientists say it is a trick of light; Copyright (c) 1980, By Vincent DiPietro and Greg Molenaar