On controversies concerning the colors of Mars and the evidence for life there.


From the telescope to the Space Age

50 years ago Mars was still known only by what could be learned by using telescopes to peer through our turbulent atmosphere. There was a high ratio of interpretation to knowledge. The dark regions girdling the orange planet were originally designated 'Maria', or 'Seas' from precedent set with mapping the Moon. In the 1870s the director of the Milan Observatory, Giovanni Schiaparelli glimpsed a fine spider web like texture spanning the bright presumed deserts. Fleeting glimpses of detail appeared to him like networks of lines which he descriptively named 'channels' or 'grooves' which in Italian is 'canali'. Thanks to a lazy popular press the observations were written up as seeing literal 'canals'! At the end of the 1800s Percival Lowell became the most prominent popularizer of the 'canals', building a major observatory to gather observations. Lowell conjured up visions of the heroic survival of a mature united planetary civilization as their planet steadily dried into a parched desert, digging a planet wide canal system directing the precious water from the melting poles to the remaining 'oases'. Other astronomers did not see the 'canals', a few saw them but observed their 'breaking up' into roughly aligned fine details during moments of perfect seeing. All Earthly telescopic observations are compromised by the atmosphere they must look through, but moments of fortuitously steady air currents along the line of sight can allow astonishing detail to be briefly glimpsed. Such perfect seeing is something of a freak of nature, rare and unavailable on demand.

Left: A partial map of Mars with the network of 'canals' suggests what is view able during periods of 'good seeing' through a large telescope. At the right is an idealized impression of how Mars would appear in 'perfect seeing', when the telescope rather than our atmosphere is the limiting factor. Looking at this image from a distance may result in your own experience of seeing 'canals'. The tendency of the eye-brain interaction to emphasize perception of patterns from randomness contributes to the subjective 'structuring' of marginal fine detail.


For decades the 'canals' were prominent in Mars literature, maps and painted images. Ironically, the initial notion that the dark regions might be bodies of water was first discredited by observations of 'canals' crossing them! The possibility of visible plant life on Mars was for many years taken seriously and rose above the 'canal' controversy in respectability around the mid 20th century. A yearly 'wave of darkening' and subsequent fading of the dark regions of Mars had long been perceived as spreading from the polar caps in the springtime of both hemispheres, as if vegetation was being 'watered' by the melting polar ice caps and carpeting large regions with thriving plant life.

The vegetation scenario was also encouraged by the appearance of Mars through large refractor telescopes through which many early visual observations were made. The planet appeared in such telescopes as a 'ripe apricot' orange colored disk with the equatorial regions appearing a darker blue green. This is partially due to the behavior of the lenses of that time which were imperfect in bringing all colors to the same focus, the blue light often being spread a little beyond the redder part of the spectrum which would naturally be the color focused for in the case of Mars. Darker details surrounded by brighter ones would therefore have a green-blue 'overlay' over their borders apart from any real color details. Another factor is the color contrast effects of the human eye, which briefly imprints across ones retinas an 'afterimage' of an opposite spectral color to that which you have been staring at when one looks away to a more neutral colored surface. For example, if a small bright red square of colored paper is placed atop a large gray sheet and stared at for half a minute, then the red square removed while continuing to stare at the same spot, a ghostly vivid green square will briefly appear in its place.

In the early 1960's the great Dutch astronomer Gerard Kuiper performed careful observations with an 82 inch reflecting telescope, observing in a brightly lit room to avoid the 'dazzling' visual effects of seeing a sunlit disk against a black background. He compared his impressions of Mars with arrays of color chips before him. With his eyes thus more 'day adapted' he determined the deserts were indeed a light orange ocher, but the dark regions were in the Martian Spring a neutral gray color, with a touch of moss green in the equatorial regions. Kuiper concluded the obvious greenish blue colors others reported there were caused by poor 'seeing' conditions.

As the space age dawned the dwindling speculation concerning the 'canals' of Mars tended towards geologic explanations which fit the emerging concepts of Mars as a very dry cold desert with ever lowering estimated air pressure. The dark areas were also being reconsidered as possibly caused by chemical reactions not involving plant life, or as the shifting of volcanic and bright dust over large regions by eruptions and seasonal winds. The failure of space probes to see 'canals' gave a merciful death to the idea. Mariner 4 found the atmospheric density of Mars to be a threadbare 6 millibars of pressure (to sea level Earth's 1000). Between this near vacuum, which would quickly evaporate distilled liquid water, and the extreme cold, (ranging from highs of 25-30 degrees C to polar lows of under -100 C), the likely size range of possible Martian surface life seemed to retreat to practically microscopic levels. It is cold enough there for atmospheric Carbon Dioxide to 'freeze out' and be deposited on the polar surfaces in winter as 'dry ice'!

The real Mars has emerged so far not as an abode of life, but as an unsuspected geologic wonderland. This small world, similar in surface area to the land regions of Earth, broadly resembles the Moon with its craters and lava plains, and Earth like in its volcanoes, sand dunes, traces of ancient liquid erosion of the landscape, it's dust storms and clouds. Uniquely Martian surface processes are being discovered such as polar vents probably driven by release of gases from eroding ice, whose dust component often leaves varied dark dust patterns around them. The primarily carbon dioxide atmosphere ranges in pressure from a rarefied 1 millibar at the top of the highest volcano to over 11 millibars at the bottom of the deepest impact basin. One target of the Mariner 9 mapping mission was dark areas on the surface changing with time. The yearly darkening of the equatorial regions turned out to be caused by seasonal winds carrying bright dust which annually covers and uncovers wide regions of darker rocky terrain. The seasonal changes thus tell us nothing about the possibility of present life on Mars. Perhaps only a sample return mission can hope to answer some of the intimate questions we would like to ask about our neighbors past, especially if life does or once existed there. Unfortunately an unmanned sample return mission is beyond what can now be afforded, and so much more so a manned expedition. In the mean time, numerous robot probes including rovers are revealing more aspects of what kind of place Mars is as more regions of greater variety are explored from the surface.

An excellent late 20th century summary of the traditional mystiques surrounding Mars were represented in the 'Mars And the Mind Of Man' conference of November 1971, timed to coincide with the true unveiling of the 'Red Planet' with the arrival of the Mariner 9 spacecraft to Mars orbit. The noted participants included Ray Bradbury, a great storyteller whose 'Martian Chronicles' brought to 1950's readers a vivid reinventing of the 'classical' inhabited Mars of our collective dreams and Arthur C. Clarke, whose writings ranged from popularizing our growing knowledge to fiction building upon these discoveries. Among those representing the emerging scientific consensus of the real and possible Mars were Planetary scientists Carl Sagan and Bruce Murray. An excellent survey of the rise of and metamorphoses of interest and knowledge of Mars in recent decades can be had in Andrew Chaikin's great book 'A Passion For Mars'.

The romantic aura long surrounding the 'Red Planet' is now revealing itself in the digital realm, with web sites sharing and reacting to our collective discoveries. As new spacecraft reach Mars, the mission related web sites have become among the biggest focuses of interest in the young history of the World Wide Web. The numbers of people involved in Mars related discussion on the Web are probably in the many thousands, with a wide spectrum of areas of interest shown. Students searching the web for space related information probably represent the most important group to reach with real information, who are working on assignments or are actually interested in the subject. Perhaps some of them even dream of going to Mars. There is still hope for this, however uncertain. There is a greater chance of VR type exploration of Mars, which will be accessible to all able to display such images. Some students are pursuing Planetary Science as their subject of choice, assuring a pool of future scientists to work with the information gathered by future robot explorers. It is especially such an audience I hope to reach, with hope that curious young readers will learn in time what approaches of inquiry can contribute to our body of scientific knowledge, and which ones are at best idle entertainment and at worst an unproductive waste of time.


Some specifics on recent Mars related controversies

I will mention a few trends of irresponsible rumor mongering I have seen on the web concerning Mars in recent years, broadcast from sites featuring certain conspiracy theories which in effect libel the history of space exploration. To get to the conclusion first, there is no attempt to censor an 'Earth like' Mars, nor is there an attempt to sweep evidence of life of any sort 'under the rug'. There is a good deal of caution and high standards applied to evidence that might shed light on the existence of life on other worlds. Caution must be applied to avoid announcing what could under further scrutiny turn out to be a 'false positive', with resulting likely devastation of credibility for the field as well as for individuals. It is the truth as revealed under high standards of reliability we must accept, however it does or does not finally meet our expectations. Whatever the level of information we have to work with, theories are then put forth to try to make sense of observed things, then held like a stitched together banner against the winds of fate. They will be torn to shreds if they cannot stand the rigors of examination or will fly proudly with the vindication of bringing to light some new aspect of nature. Such is the way of Science.

A landmark in the propagation of conspiracy rumors regarding modern Mars exploration seems to be the 1997 book by Barry E. Digregorio with Gilbert Levin and Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, 'Mars, The Living Planet' so a 'mini review' follows as aspects of this book display the kind of related beliefs which are endlessly repeated on line. An emphasis of the book is the weight Levin gives to the results of the biology experiments on Viking. Gilbert Levin was a member of the Viking Science Team concerned with the biology experiments, and probably provided the detailed backgrounds and descriptions of the experiments. Carl Sagan would later say in his talks that the Viking life detection experiments obtained two out of the three positives sought in the methods used in the trio of biology experiments. A rather dry but hopefully reasonably summarized paragraph sketching out the results can be read here. Levin seems to feel the caution in explaining the behavior of the Martian soil in the Viking biology experiments was excessive. My impression vacillates between someone invoking an image of a persecuted heretic and that of a dogged crusader on the conceivable verge of vindication. In the end who knows? The cause is periodically kept alive with articles like this.*

I would have liked to have separate chapters by the different authors to better sort out the editorial emphasis of the contributors. My primary interest in this book is not in the biology experiment results, but in a field I have experience in, the preparation of Planetary images for presentation. The more sensational aspects of the book deal with color related issues related to biological scenarios for what is being seen on and over Mars.

'Mars, The Living Planet' is cited by a few who still represent the dark regions of Mars as being green and alive in willful ignorance of what we have learned since the dawn of the Space Age. The book reads largely like an appeal for the revival of the vegetation hypothesis of the 'wave of darkening' noted above.

The color reproductions in that book are generally terrible and the images are not necessarily accurately described in the captions, confusing and undermining some of the points the authors were trying to make. For instance, color plate 4, which shows a photo mosaic map containing a large elongated dark gray region on Mars, is shown as gray (and upside down) above a caption describing it as blue green with a similar caption error on another such photo map on plate 23. Plate 5 is incorrectly described as part of the first Viking 1 color picture. Plate 6 has nothing to do with the caption below it, the intent seemingly to provide a comparison of the pre and post adjustment color balance of the first picture but instead showing the 'Sun over the shoulder' view of the flag and other painted parts. The first color surface picture is partially shown and correctly attributed on the facing page, on plates 7 and 8, but poorly and luridly reproduced. Images processed to make the brightest basaltic rock surfaces with less dust appear greenish are cited as evidence for lichen like growths perched on the rocks. The 'changes' cited seem to me more likely to be due to the deposition and removal of dust across the rock surfaces, as was seen on the lander surface during the mission. This is ironically exactly the explanation of the large scale seasonal changes of the large dark regions which were once cited as possible evidence of widespread plant life on Mars. The last color plate, of a reasonably reproduced Hubble Mars image release showing greenish looking dark regions, is used to imply the dark areas are actually green and by implication living. With this thicket of image related problems described, I conclude my reactions to the part of that book which I claim some expertise in with the Mars sky and surface color issue.

The book tells the story of the high end CRT monitors at the JPL press area early in the Viking 1 mission displaying the initial attempt at a color picture. At first they looked like what the prints aimed for, showing a grayish sky. As further refinements to that hastily released first color picture were made known the high end monitors, the first color product most people there would see, were manually readjusted by technicians using the RGB 'brightness knobs'. I suspect this monitor adjustment was an effort to easily correct the color error in the initial print run while a new batch of color photographic prints were being laboriously prepared. Gilbert Levin's 20 year old son Ron then began changing the color adjustments back to the 'Earth like' setting undoing the work of the technicians. Ron was shortly confronted by Viking project head Jim Martin and warned to stop or be thrown out. This is probably the origin of the conspiracy story regarding the supposed NASA efforts to hide an Earth like sky on Mars.

The first color image of Mars by the Viking 1 lander was assembled from red, green and blue 'scans' across the surroundings by a panoramic camera on the lander rotating like a periscope. As referenced in the NASA SP-425 'The Martian Landscape' page 27, the initial intention was of showing a noncommittal gray sky, as they were having trouble believing the overall reddish color bias and needed more time to commit themselves to a confident presentation of what the cameras were telling them. In the rush to release prints 8 hours after getting the data the color balance of the prints being processed in the photo lab (chemically processed photographic prints from a master negative) drifted towards the blue enough to give a startlingly familiar look to that initial release of the first color picture. (I have one of those prints). One could imagine hiking through that desert scene, which was quickly carried on and in publications all over the world (left). The second version of that color surface view resembled the right image. My page specifically devoted to surface views of the colors of Mars can be seen here. With these examples below of measured Martian surface colors I leave behind my reaction to the above mentioned book.

The fallacy of the 'blue sky' Mars surface images paraded on some web sites like this can be seen with the extra blue color given to the very gray Viking spacecraft by such treatment. This phony 'hidden blue sky' issue is probably among the most often repeated canards of Mars conspiracy mongers. The basis for most representations of 'Martian blue skies' in recent images of the surface are preliminary jpeg releases of raw image data being used, without regard to the layers of qualifications one must take into account between mass produced jpegs and properly calibrated image data which becomes available later.


Left: Even from Earth based measurements the spectrum of Mars has been seen to reflect more light in the red end of the visible spectrum than the blue end, with the bright and dark areas appearing as similar traces across the spectrum of different intensities, the dark areas 'rising' less on the red end.

Right: Surface measurements made by the Pathfinder lander resulted in spectral data of superior quality, extending well into the infra red. The portion of the similar Martian spectrum measured from Earth decades ago in the left diagram is indicated in the green box.





For photos made on the surface with red, green and blue filters rotated before the camera optics, proper color balance generally makes the green image exposed as a decent representation of the relative gray tones in the scene, with the red channel overall lighter and the blue channel overall darker. Only the actual data released on the NASA PDS Imaging Node can be used with confidence to provide a view of what the cameras are showing us on Mars, not the preliminary inferior JPEG releases which are generously provided to give the public a quick look. The excellent Pancam true color images site provides the highest quality color images, prepared by the team most familiar with the camera characteristics.

The comparison of both preliminary and calibrated versions of the same images, generated with the preliminary JPEGs and from the real data, is a worthy exercise. The examples at left provide an example from Spirit's sol 149.

On top is a color image close to actual color values, with gray scale strips from each color channel making up the color image also shown. Note how the brightness changes across the spectrum correspond to trends measured from Earth and from Mars. The RGB gray scale comparison on the right follows the trends of the spectral measurements from Earth shown above, with the brightness and contrast of the surface materials increasing toward the red end of the spectrum.

Such absolute color channel intensity variations are not incorporated into the preliminary jpeg releases, as seen in the comparison jpeg derived version below. The actual brightness levels and contrast in the RGB color channels are discarded as automatic levels adjustments are made for fast releases of such data. Such 'auto contrast' treatment can optimize the range of brightness for individual frames by stretching the contrast levels but produce misleading color when simply combined as an RGB image. Martian skies and dark surface materials looking a garish blue are a frequent result of such efforts. In reality a dust free basaltic rock should appear a dark nearly neutral gray.






An added source of error is introduced when the color balance of one image presentation medium is added to a displayed image when rephotographed. An author once e-mailed me with an image attached of Pathfinder's then new color view of 'twin peaks' photographed from a display monitor, with the cool 'color temperature' of the display making the bright sky look quite blue. In apparent ignorance of what happens when you shoot an image of a monitor with a camera set to a white balance for more neutral color lit subjects, he claimed this could be the 'true' color and strongly suggested the later official color images were part of a conspiracy which began during Viking. This dubious line of 'evidence' has been propagated by others after the MER rover landings and continues with each new spacecraft landed on Mars. The facts are each lander and rover have independently obtained consistant measurments of the spectra of their surroundings.

A bit more more on the 'Blue Martian Sky' discussion which is informative yet a bit more involved can be seen here.

Rather than taking up bandwidth replicating what this site and many others have already done, I will sketch out a few of the issues referenced in dated entries below from the more comprehensive 'The hidden colors of Mars' site, due to its convenient format for reference*. Shortly after the MER rovers landed on Mars and began returning photographs from the surface a few interested parties began accusing NASA of lying about the true colors of Mars! Accusatory claims were made and repeated like digital echoes that somehow the true colors of Mars were more Earth like, especially in the color of the sky. Images of the color target/sundial differing from the examples photographed on Earth were cited as examples of deliberate 'altering' of the colors being seen on the surface. Some of the color mosaics made by the MER rovers show color chips on the spacecraft sundial differing widely from their actual colors because the pigments in the color chips, particularly the green and blue colors, vary widely from their visual appearance when the Infrared filter is substituted for the red. This is commonly done for maximum detection of subtle Martian color variations. Numerous other photos are also made in visual color wavelengths in which the color chart as photographed on Earth is recognizable, getting dustier with time.

Lower down on the page cited above, at the January 10-11 entry, can be seen a photo taken at a JPL news conference showing a projected video image of a color Martian landscape just returned by the Spirit rover. A photo of a video projection (of relatively blue color temperature), photographed by cameras apparently set to 'incandescent' light white balance, is implied on such sites to represent a quiet or even 'subversive' revealing of an 'Earth like' blue sky on Mars!

On the left are photographs I made during landing day of the 'Opportunity' rover at JPL. Left: a photo showing the blue cast of the video projector above the press site podium compared to the ambient fluorescent lighting at the time. Middle: the unveiling of the first color photo, color balanced for the seated people lit by incandescent lamps. Note the blue cast to the brighter portions of the video projection, especially the sky. Right: the same photo with the projection color manually balanced to more resemble what I saw. It was clear visually that the image projected was identical to that which was released on line immediately afterward (right image). This was also the case with the corresponding color picture made from the 'Spirit' rover cited above.

The good representation of Mars related conspiracy theories as well as the relatively reserved editorial stance of the 'Hidden Colors' site justify my referring to it as a place to guide those curious about recent 'fringe views' about Mars even if I regard items presented therein as ludicrous. As I continue mentioning issues highlighted on that site, I come to a couple references for which I choose to refrain from giving names. This is partly in the spirit of showing more professional courtesy to others who I disagree with then they have chosen to show me especially in the editorial or intellectual rights realms, and partly to not contribute attention to them any more than can be helped while feeling it necessary to allude to them at all. They have their own audiences and hosts of fans, and indeed they serve the purpose of providing a place for the romantic heritage surrounding Mars to live on for some who find the revealed physical facts insufficiently exciting.

Continuing down the page, at the January 13 and 29 entries, a site is mentioned as an authority on Mars color. The specific predominance of blue skies in its raw JPEG derived MER images claiming to be 'true color' is the first 'red flag' I would note, for reasons stated above.

I have seen elsewhere on line Mars surface images from preliminary JPEG releases presented alongside the 'natural color' versions with the question 'which looks more natural?'. Naturally an Earth like scene is more familiar, but the collective everyday experience of the readers is so far relevant only for Earth. A new world has it's own story to tell, and as it's peculiarities are revealed something new gradually becomes 'familiar' on its own terms.

Generally there is a wider agenda alluded to in sites claiming to be revealing hidden facts about Mars we 'aren't supposed to know'. As a general principal, web sites which trumpet 'anomalist' (a reserved word for 'questionable') causes, such as an obsession with Cydonia, alleged officially 'ignored' traces of alien life on the Moon as well as Mars, hidden agendas of government and other secret entities, etc. are poor bets if what you are after is confidently accumulated knowledge which will be built upon in your life time.

The February 1 entry in the 'Hidden colors' site preserves a reference to a bizarre episode in which a piece of my work was involuntarily involved. The essence of the story was sensationalistic claims about plant life built upon a poorly color balanced initial release of a Mars Express image making the gray streaky markings around the Gusev landing site of the Spirit rover look green. Decades of progress in our understanding of Mars seemed to be ignored by these few loud voices in favor of wishful thinking who would rather believe the green was real than that the image was poorly color balanced. A web site with a wide audience which has championed many space related anomalist causes such as the 'face on Mars', has a bad habit of using other peoples work without permission. It happened to me, as part of a misleading article which I was glad to help publicly expose. One of my images of a preliminary colorised gray scale THEMIS mosaic of the Gusev landing site region was used to make an absurd point. The act of taking without permission was compounded by an initial incorrect attribution of the mosaic to NASA. I took some pains to correct this attribution with e-mails, posts on usenet and other places, and on my site by 'branding' a notice on my image, (linked to in the original story), to warn whoever uploaded it what was going on! The saga, which I participated in clarifying to the 'Bad Astronomer' Phil Plait, (whose site I heartily recommend), appears here.

A later spectacular apparent case of wishful thinking acting upon misperception of imagery from Mars took place in early June 2007, when Ron Levin, (who was chastised as a young man for interfering with the monitors at JPL), in support of his recent attempts to establish that liquid water can be found on Mars under the most favorable conditions, used as evidence a garishly colored photo from the Opportunity rover in an article run on the New Scientist web site as evidence for a water pond or smooth clear ice! The site soon added a retraction, now over the article, after some thoughtful people informed the editors the clear water or flat 'ice pond', which owed its blue appearance to the arbitrarily wild color palette used, was on a slope of about 30 degrees along the well documented 'Burns Cliff'! For days to come the proclamations on some web forums of triumph that water was seen on Mars had to be rhetorically pried from the anomalist's clenched fingers, as for a time many in their ranks expressed disbelief that such an obvious problem as the tilt could be overlooked. A lesson here is that even as intelligent a person as Levin, an MIT physicist, can be misled by incomplete understanding of a false color image taken out of context. An excellent summary of the story can be found on the Planetary Society web site. Whenever a spacecraft in Mars orbit makes images which are released showing greenish and blue dark regions we will see yet another round of proclamations of water and fields of vegetation on Mars. The truth of such things as liquids on Mars are revealed as we take more opportunities to look. The detection of brine droplets on the Phoenix lander leg shifting from frozen to liquid states was based on careful examination of images and shows the process at work of the discovery of remarkable things. Ice evaporating in the sunlight was also seen on that mission.

Numerous web sites preserve and propagate a host of tempests, often within implied conspiratorial contexts, generated on the web which have come and gone as spacecraft have given us new data to use and 'abuse'. We see therein controversy needlessly generated by incomplete understanding of the process of obtaining such pictures combined with a cynical attitude fanned by a few professional cranks. Sometimes interesting things taken out of context are misrepresented. The process of heaping the greatest burden of interpretation upon the most marginal information at the limits of perception has continued to this day. The collective 'Rorschach test' Mars has provided for Humanity began with the 'canals' and has to one degree or other been applied to images from every lander mission and some orbiters. Up to now I have kept the subject at a realm reachable by reason, however at least a passing reference is required to ideas that to this observer appear to slide into the abyss. Past examples, most notably the so called 'face' on Mars, show the trends of how such ideas respond to better data. Something which vaguely suggests something remarkable when seen in poor resolution is later examined close up, revealing geologic processes dominating the new detail. What often happens is an isolated interesting looking variation of many nearby similar formations is highlighted at the expense of others with less provocative shapes. One often repeated 'anomaly' of this kind is shown in a crop of a Mars Global Surveyor photo of a Martian crater containing a strikingly round and regularly textured dune field, apparently being represented as possibly something artificial. A representative example of imaginative presentation can be found here. (In the original photo similar but less intriguingly shaped dune fields can be seen within neighboring craters.)

With the inevitable claims of alien artifacts in all levels of scale in Mars images we swiftly slide into a pit of unrestrained iindulgence. As better photos of something earlier claimed to be of artificial origin are obtained, two reactions are common. Because it doesn't show obvious alien origin the image is claimed to be a CGI fake, thus cementing an idea extrapolated from low resolution data. The other common reaction is to 'retreat' to smaller scales to look for weird things. Most of the extraordinary claims one finds are of things at or below the resolution limits of the camera combined with image compression artifacts and varied electronic 'noise', etc. acted upon by the 'detail from randomness' trend of human vision. The game of seeing funny shapes in variously lit rocks at the limits of detail on Mars surface images goes on and on, but photos taken in Earthly deserts show similar things, as can images of numerous random processes at all scales. A section of a USGS document showing many eroded rocks which under insufficient resolution could easily be mistaken for technological or biological traces can be seen here.The human tendency to organize random visual textures into familiar shapes is known as 'Pareidolia'. Fossils, machine parts, and crawling animals are reported in great numbers on related web forums by people actively seeking such things in preliminary JPEG releases of Mars surface photography.


On the rifts in 'world views' behind the widening acceptance of alternatives to science

Here I wander from specific symptoms of unseemly speculations on the results of space exploration, and stray into observations and thoughts on what the symptoms may be indicating. I thus willingly step into the ethereal minefield of trying to suggest sociological trends applicable to the subject, aware that it is hazardous to attempt to coherently convey what may simply be incoherence. This is about ways of thinking rather than about evidence. One can grope about at where currents of collective thought may have arisen, even if one cannot look into the mind of those behind the web pages dedicated to what can be uncharitably termed the 'lunatic fringes' of this story. I am not trying to divine how any specific persons thought processes run. No direct accusations toward individuals are even necessary, for the guilty parties speak well and loudly to brand themselves. Cottage industries have grown for decades around the idea of conspiracies lurking among secret organizations ancient and modern, involving anything one can imagine is judged vital to hide from the public. Thanks to numerous instances of violation of the public trust by government agencies there is a veneer of mistrust hovering about any government related enterprise like flies over spoiling food. Institutions once held sacred have, mostly deservedly, lost the respect of widening percentages of the populace.

In a decades long trend the 'world view' served by the methods of science is becoming but a subset of the attitudes large portions of the population appear to embrace as the very assumptions behind reality concepts diverge. It is not my intention to show disrespect for how others believe but to try to describe trends within this restricted context. Life on other worlds, for example, seems to be to be regarded by many people less in terms of physical possibilities as in the case of SETI related work, and more in what I would call 'religious' or 'mystical' terms. Such a context easily ignores whatever reservations may snag at the revelations, little matters such as physical limitations to widespread travel between stars are ignored or assumed to be transcended by infinitely able beings. There are people who claim to interact with such beings, to call in UFOs at will, and such. Perhaps there is an eternal cultural need to manifest something of the 'religious experience' from the 'noise in the observations'. In days of yore this manifested itself, among people who shared widespread sincere beliefs, with visions of saints and other religious entities as their visions of ultimate power. Now many people, deep in their hearts, have revised the Deity from a religious to a technological concept, with aliens in spaceships from afar the new bearers of infinite wisdom.

The continuing division of society along political, ideological and 'spiritual' lines has in the process acted to 'diffuse' and divide the earlier 'standardized reality consensus' felt by past generations, a process which first reached a 'critical mass' in the late 1960s. This tends to make the potential 'audience' for anything one might regard as important or of general interest a steadily smaller portion of the population. I understand the value of at least some of the many paths we now feel free to pursue in benevolently enriching ourselves. I don't, for instance, feel the need to crusade against Astrology despite my understanding of the physical planets and stars, for it is peoples own business what they choose to believe. In my view such multiplicity of 'world views' can be healthy as it improves the overall social adaptability, but such trends tend to diminish the exposure of quantified knowledge to the population, along with any other influence.

I am concerned that our accumulated body of knowledge is increasingly being treated as just another religion or in opposition to their religion rather than being seen on its own terms. Masses of shared ideas catch on widely for one reason or another which are adopted by some, questioned by others and disproved by a few. Some of those promoting alternate narratives to that supported by facts are people whose interests are less in illuminating truths and more on turning the spotlight on themselves for fame and financial gain. The old themes of persecuted seekers of truth fighting cover-ups are played out repeatedly. People arise to exploit the dissatisfied undercurrents in society, rarely inventing anything new but often stitching together from current popular causes new sock puppets pulled over the same old themes.

Science aware individuals will likely find, during discussions with many random people interested in the subjects addressed in this page, that the conceptual frameworks some now view the world through are not applicable to discussions in a scientific context. This or that spiritual concept is treasured for what individual 'meaning' it can provide, in fact it is unreasonable to subject such beliefs to the critical rigors expected of a scientific theory. The conceptual 'trick' is, as I see it, to keep separate what it is you treasure about a belief from matters in the 'physical realm' which have different standards of evaluation. Polarization on a more fundamental level may be in play in the evident divergence in how ideas are adopted. In my broad brushed overview, people whose related thinking is right brain oriented seem to fall in love with an idea and try to fit evidence to it because of how it 'feels', with little effort to try and see what might be wrong with such ideas. A 'left brain' approach accepts quantified information and promotes the kind of inquiry that can gather more facts.

When contributing to Science, one tries to fit what one thinks may be behind observed aspects of nature to what is known about the actual circumstances. Any predictions based on your theory would be helpful in determining its likelihood as focused better observations are made The 'left brain' approach leads to the building of informational edifices, often built upon inspired 'right brain' influenced ideas. In time the merits of the theory are revealed, and nature often fails to co-operate with ones inspired ideas. Either they collapse under the burden of new uncooperative facts, to be rebuilt another way, or they stand reinforced on the collective verdict of each new brick gathered by observations and cemented by its contribution to the structure of knowledge. Theories are proposed, and then must run the gauntlet of informed and skeptical minds as well as the verdict of better observations.

As science dominates the arena of current progress in understanding Mars, perhaps the 'romantic' side of our interest in our neighbor world needs somewhere to go, beyond escape such as science fiction literature and towards something like religion or some kind of homage to mythic cultural themes. Whatever plans people who are 'grounded' in science have for traveling to Mars have failed to stimulate significant cultural interest and momentum mostly due to spending priorities. Perhaps when real human exploration of space is absent, as has been the case since we have been confined to low Earth orbit, people turn to mythical tales woven around places denied to Mankind that address things people yearn for beyond the world they know. The problem with some myths is they dirty the waters in a number of ways and thrive in a climate of lack of critical thinking and ignorance. We see people trying to project fear with doggerel about 'chemtrails', denial of the Moon landings and other episodes of recent history, radio arrays to probe the upper atmosphere being wielded like weapons to cause hurricanes and earthquakes, and so on.

Echoing in the collective web expressed consciousness, thanks to a few people and their inspired minions, is a general scenario behind some of the recently circulated 'fringe beliefs' associated with past civilizations on Mars which is broadly outlined at the conclusion of the otherwise forgettable movie 'Mission To Mars'. Echoes of the 'Ancient Astronaut' fad of an earlier generation are sometimes incorporated in such lore, with ancient Egypt usually being involved. Such scenarios are in my view generally more akin to religious revelation then scientific theory. At worst, the representation of unlikely interpretations of available information as 'suppressed truths' can amount to a form of 'disinformation', scattered like sterile bait designed to snag potentially constructive individuals. An unknown portion of young minds are thus turned to unproductive dead ends, which can generate camaraderie within small on-line communities but continues to dilute the quality of the sum total of information people learn..

Sometimes people making revelatory claims try to suggest 'great powers' are at work to limit what we can know about such things. The greatest pitfalls of all lie in wait for those who seek to grant the powers of infinitely wise beings to bring about what you are trying to explain. This promotes 'making excuses' for perceived faults in the theory by invoking such infinite power, such as can be detected in some of the extremes of religious, anomalist and 'flying saucer' oriented discussions. The man who enunciated a thinking process designed to home in on determining causes was the Logician and Franciscan Friar William of Ockham, known generally as Occam,(1285-1349) whose thought processes slashed like a rhetorical razor through the religious cobwebs clinging to accelerating inquiries into nature. An explanation offered about something should pick the simplest possible explanation for observations, and be stingy, or parsimonious, about anything not forced upon one by the data, as in 'it is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer'. More about Occam and 'Occam's razor' can be read of, among other places, in his Wikipedia article here. Critical thinking is vital to the pursuit of knowledge, and promotion of such is one of those responsibilities one cannot count on being emphasized in public education, and especially not by corporate media outlets or politicians.


Mars continues to reveal its secrets under our continuing scrutiny by spacecraft, which conveys us along the path between our initial feeble impressions and the truth we seek. Many dedicated people work to share this knowledge with the public. Unfortunately a good deal of spurious information is also being circulated. The need to be careful when presenting something as a color photograph, such as to state any known qualifications to the use of the term 'true color', is evident as interests can run with an idea based on misleading information. Such is the democratic power of the web. One should keep in mind the power of wishful thinking combined with ignorance. A lot of the more extreme nonsense being spread about Mars appears to be by people who show rather little knowledge about the subject. When what amounts to 'divination' of content from the 'noise' at and beyond the limits of information is at work rather than the straightforward perception of information, the results will generally reveal more about the observer than the thing being observed, As Carl Sagan basically said about the 'canals' of Mars. The act of persistent trumpeting of 'fringe' ideas, like an artificial 'face on Mars' or creationism, can create an air of controversy where none existed, in effect providing a cheap way to 'carve out a piece of the subject pie' in the public arena. The truth is exciting enough without people resorting to exploiting the part of the public mind that indulges itself in tabloid entertainment. Inquiring minds deserve more than to be pandered to. People should know they have access to all the painstakingly gathered knowledge one could want to know about this and so many other subjects. Part of the divergence of web presence attitudes about space subjects are driven by belief, some by the trends of cumulative facts. In the end the judgment is for us all of us to make based on what makes sense.

©Don Davis

August 2008, revised February 2009 and 2017


*Please note: some of the sites referenced above or linked to are intended within the scope of this article as examples of vastly differing approaches to the subject and whose editorial emphasis, traceable thinking processes and conclusions should not be regarded as endorsed here in any way. They serve only as decent examples.



A page on my technique of getting the best out of the THEMIS data, including links to the images I worked on, can be seen here. In fact there is excellent and often subtle color information shown in the THEMIS data, particularly at the boundaries of distinctly colored regions. In groping for something relatable to 'true color' from such information the use of cameras with different color filter combinations must be taken into account, a subject which I have devoted a page to here. I freely admit that my motivation for doing such 'restoration work' on flawed visual material is primarily an esthetic one, in the sense of striving to see the intriguing views through a 'clearer window' by removing known camera effects. The THEMIS camera on Mars Odyssey unfortunately was plagued with light leaks depending on the orientation of sunlit surroundings, most visibly in the violet, which caused a repeating 'banding' generally more acute near the edges of the images. My manual suppression of the camera idiosyncrasies in a few chosen views strove to allow a clearer view of what the flawed camera was trying to show us, thus only the flaws received my focused artistic treatment to make them disappear. In later years a good deal of automatic color correction in the 'blue' channel has been used.
A planetary image presenter with a decidedly anomalist leaning has a section on in his site devoted to THEMIS images, colored according to his preference. In his 'Mars Odyssey Color Correction' page most of his versions of THEMIS images are unaccountably overlain with a dominant 'sepia tone' with the result that the subtle variations seen in the actual data are consistently obscured. Here is my treatment of the widely reproduced Melas Chasma image release, The original and two stages of my work, ( showing removal of camera blemishes, and color balancing) and the image as presented in the site mentioned above. Comparison will be more rewarding than would be further description.

A similar project followed my desire to see a better view of that famous 1966 Lunar Orbiter Earth/Moon 'panorama', which for years seemed too daunting to try. A young computer image processing guru then sent me an image processed from the high res scan I had on my site, with the horrible stripes characteristic of that spacecraft camera system nearly removed! The amount of hand painting to smooth out the remaining vertical 'stripes' was then brought to a practical amount, and the result can be seen here. (Since then excellent 'de-striped' Lunar Orbiter images were produced by the U.S. Geological Survey, and efforts to read the original data tapes have borne fruit, starting with that same image in unprecedented quality and detail.)