A NASA Snow Job? Or Just
A Lot Of Flakes?
Mars Images Reveal Oddities - On Earth

By Faye Flam
Philiadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

Forget about ancient traces of water on Mars. There's a little white bunny up there.
And stone tools.
And dinosaur fossils.
Plants, art, even letters of the alphabet.
While NASA scientists pore over the latest Red Planet images for shreds of evidence that it might have supported algae or pond scum, thousands of earnest civilians are scanning the same pictures and pointing out all sorts of things the professionals missed or haven't acknowledged.
Ever since the robot rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in January, NASA has been flooded with hundreds of daily calls and e-mails from people eager to share their own dramatic discoveries.
Medford resident George Filer says he has spotted letters similar to E and G, written on Martian rocks. Filer and his associates at MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) believe these are the creations of intelligent beings. He's been trying to tell NASA, without success.
"They keep a lot from the public," said Filer, a retired Air Force pilot.
Another observer called The Inquirer to report he'd seen fossils of dinosaurs and their eggs, and a multitude of marine fossils - whales, fish and giant squid. "You have to know how to look," he said. Others have seen rocks they say appear to have been fashioned into primitive stone tools.
Never before have earthlings had such sharp pictures from another world, or such easy access to chat rooms, Web sites and virtual communities to discuss the fossils, tools, letters and the bunny. Especially the bunny.
A white rabbitlike image appeared in some of the first pictures beamed back from Opportunity, caught in three-quarter profile, long ears erect.
"Some Web sites have detailed spatial analysis on the bunny," said project scientist Phil Christensen of Arizona State University.
Christensen says he saw the bunny in the early shots beamed back from Opportunity. He said he lobbied to have the rover take a closer look, but the bunny disappeared.
NASA scientists believe the "bunny" was probably a piece of the landing air bag or some other bit of human-generated trash, Christensen said. On one Web site, an outraged writer accused NASA of intentionally running over the bunny with the rover.
The notion of bunnies on Mars may seem far-fetched now, but it wasn't all that long ago that even eminent scientists speculated about Martian trees, animals, even intelligent beings. In the 1960s, popular astronomer and author Carl Sagan talked up the prospect of life on both Mars and Venus.
A closer look at Venus showed it was more than 800 degrees at the surface. And then in 1965, the spacecraft Mariner 4 flew by Mars and snapped the first close-up pictures of Mars - which were both amazing and disheartening. They revealed nothing but a dry, dead landscape.
"There was nowhere to hide large, conspicuous organisms," said Harvard biologist Andrew Knoll.
But Sagan and other scientists didn't give up hope; perhaps life was there in a more subtle form.
When the Viking spacecraft landed on Mars in 1976, it ran a series of tests for life. A robotic arm on Viking mixed nutrients with the Martian soil to see whether any microbes would metabolize them and spit out telltale gases. The tests came back positive.
Scientists waffled for months over whether the tests could possibly indicate life. Meanwhile, pictures came back that showed a rock etched with a shape similar to a letter B, said Christensen, who worked as a NASA intern at the time.
The NASA guys thought it was funny, he said, but many in the public believed the B was carved by Martians. "We learned our lesson," said Christensen. "For a lot of people, this wasn't funny."
NASA scientists did more analyses of the Viking landing site and found surprises in the chemistry of the Martian soil. They decided it was an unanticipated chemical reaction that made their life-test come out positive. Adding to the bleak picture, they determined that the atmosphere was less than 1 percent as thick as ours.
According to Captured by Aliens, by Joel Achenbach, Sagan pretty much killed the B theory when he told talk-show host Johnny Carson it was very unlikely that Martians would use the same alphabet as Americans.
But in 1976 NASA did it again. In pictures beamed back from the Viking Orbiter, it noticed a hill that looked like a huge face with a solemn expression. The agency printed and released the picture: a cute artifact of light. It got little attention at first.
Eight years later, in 1984, the face stared out at millions of supermarket shoppers from the cover of the Weekly World News. Former CBS science consultant Richard Hoagland wrote a book speculating that the face, as well as several pyramids, were carved by an ancient Martian civilization.
Thousands of people still believe aliens made the face, though a later view of Mars from the Mars Global Surveyor found that, from a different angle, it just looked like a hill.
George Filer is not deterred. In a boulder photographed by Spirit on its 44th Martian day, he said, there's a distinct white E and a G, though the E may be closed off at the top, like a P. The letters appear to be 3 to 4 inches tall, Filer said.
In his Medford living room, he enlarged the picture on his wide-screen TV. He still had to point out the E and the G. They looked like they might have been chiseled or spray-painted or they might have been created by streaks of light that happened to look like letters.
"I could see easily how NASA would miss them," he said. "What we do is blow them up, so to speak, on the computer, using Photoshop and the like. If you believe there's something out there, you look for evidence."
Christensen said NASA can't make announcements about such observations unless scientists rule out more mundane explanations. They have to be wary of belief. As physicist Richard Feynman once said: The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool.
Some people at NASA probably know about the letters and much more, Filer said. "I was in the military and there are a lot of things you can't talk about." He believes NASA is trying to hide that Mars and the universe are teeming with life.
NASA's Michelle Viotti, the agency's manager for Mars public engagement, said she's not ignoring Filer; it's just that the phones are ringing off the hook, and the space agency is still sorting through the more than 15,000 e-mails it got from the public in January. NASA is not hiding anything, she said.
"Secretly, deep down, we all hope there's life beyond our own home planet."
From Mark
Rather than poking fun at this echo chamber of unsatisfactory explanations to what Flam calls "flakes" are finding in some of the images coming back from Mars, I have an idea for NASA. But first a comment to Miss Flam I would not call you a "flake" for making the huge mistake of voting for Bush in 2000 and I'm sure that you have a few questionable beliefs of your own. NASA should set up a web page devoted to giving the latest theories and hypothesis and facts regarding specific images.
The 15,000 e-mails that NASA's Mars public engagement got in January are a sign of failure on their part. So far, NASA has informed us that water used to exist on Mars, explained that the "magic carpet" soil stuck together due to electro-static forces and have given the three leading hypotheses behind what may of formed the spherules; AND THEY WONDER WHY PEOPLE ARE EMAILING THEM. Mr. Filer is doing what he has always done, collect what people find odd and try and occasionally tell us what experts think and show us what people report... I think NASA could learn something from Mr. Filer.
To NASA's Michelle Viotti, manager for Mars public engagement; save your staff some pain and HELP the public; Post what people find odd and do your best to have the best qualified to explain the images the public is sending in (heck, maybe even debunk a few of the public's misconceptions) . Educate the public, don't make fun of them :D
Alton Raines

Hoorah! It's about time someone said something about this explosion of visual idiocy surrounding Mars and its rocks and dirt. Just as preposterous as the great face on Mars,
which turned out to be nothing but a mountain like any other, people see what they want to see. They want to see critters, so they see critters. They want to see letters, so they see letters. These are the same kind of people who see faces of Jesus or the virgin Mary in burnt tacos, on the sides of aging water towers and in the turbulent bark of trees. Thankfully, NASA will conduct itself rationally and scientifically, and we won't be hearing any ridiculous assertions about the remains of a civilization on Mars, and not very likely any evidence of microbial life, either -- water or no water. But that won't stop people from seeing whatever their wild imaginations desire in photographs. There are still people who believe we never went to the moon and still people who think the world is flat.



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