No scientist really believed the "face on Mars" would turn out to be an actual artifact of an otherworldly civilization. Still, nobody could help hoping, and plenty of non-scientists believed fervently.
On Monday the cold, glassy eye of the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft has shown the "face" for what it is: a wind-eroded knoll. "I'm disappointed," said Patrick Wiggins, spokesman for Hansen Planetarium, who never believed but always hoped.Since 1976, when the Viking 1 orbiter photographed the feature from more than 1,000 miles above Mars's Cydonia region, space buffs have been puzzling over it. Most experts pooh-poohed the shape as nothing more significant than the designs humans are always reading into rocks or cloud patterns.
But others saw a nose, eyes, mouth and teeth in the blurry shadows, sunny slopes and indentations. Their interpretations sometimes verged on fervent belief.
"The Face on Mars - Its Builders Identified" is the heading for an Internet site maintained by Alan F. Alford, author of the book "Gods of the New Millennium." Alford writes, "The presence of a one-mile-long carving of a human-like Face on the surface of Mars, together with a nearby Pyramid and `City' are highly suggestive of a common cultural link between Mars and Earth."
The "pyramid" and "city" are other objects that have been interpreted by some as showing evidence of construction.
Author Richard Hoagland wrote the book "The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever" and narrated two videos on the subject. Promotional material for the book refers to the "face" as "what could be the most important discovery in recent history."
But Mars Global Surveyor's new, detailed close-ups show that it's nothing but a mound. The usual Mars craters pepper the region, but there are no pyramids and no cities.
Even Wiggins, who is famously well-versed on matters astronomical, was sorry to see the myth blown away.
"I did finally get a look at the image - and - it's disappointing," he said. It wasn't surprising, because his scientific nature would not allow him to really believe it was anything other than a natural feature. "But, yeah, the adventurous person in me hoped that it would be more," Wiggins said.