The Unmasking of Middle Butte

In the first article I posted on the Mars Face image taken in April 2001, I discussed the widely reported comments made by a planetary scientist associated with JPL that the Mars Face "reminded" him of a landform called Middle Butte in Idaho. I said that I thought it was really the responsibility of NASA to produce images that would confirm this contention and that nobody should accept their word for it without evidence. Since then, some people have made the suggestion that the "burden" was on the proponents of planetary SETI to find an image of Middle Butte that would prove NASA's contention of some significant similarity between it and the Face.

This seems a curious notion, to say the least. If people at NASA rattled off a list of a thousand landforms that "reminded" them of the Mars Face, then it would supposedly fall to others to either find images to help NASA support their claims or to be silent. I don't think so.

Apparently, the corollary to the shopworn platitude that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is that NASA's claims require only a hefty public relations budget paid for by the public -- whether they like it or not.

Nevertheless, for this one claim, I went through the exercise of acquiring an image of Middle Butte taken from directly overhead. Carol Maltby had already found a side view very shortly after the "reminding" comment was made. The overhead view shows little that couldn't be inferred from that earlier side view. Below is a section of a digital orthophoto I purchased from the United States Geological Survey. The image cost 15 dollars, with a 40-dollar minimum charge. I am certainly not going to go into debt in the search for evidence relating to any further unsupported NASA claims regarding the Face.

Being unfamiliar with the process, it took me over a week to find out how to get the image. The people at the USGS were very helpful. I made a few mistakes along the way, but I suppose I shouldn't feel too embarrassed about it. After all, the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who originated the claim that this landform was similar to the Mars Face had over a month to find an image of it while they withheld all knowledge of the Face image's existence from the public. They couldn't or wouldn't do it.

Here is the image of Middle Butte:

Orthophotograph of Middle Butte, Idaho

To coin a phrase: "Gee, it sure doesn't look like the Mars Face to me."

I don't think it would take a highly trained geologist to identify this landform as some sort of volcanic -- and completely natural -- landform. Only the most imaginative of "anomaly hunters" would ever think otherwise. It certainly appears to be a volcanic dome. It has an oval shape with a rather ill-defined, meandering base perimeter and some stuff on the top that looks like the place from which the molten rock that formed it once flowed. Except for the radial streaks formed by water, molten rock, or landslides down from its summit, there are no straight edges, let alone the repeated parallel straight edges of the Mars Face. The Mars Face has a smoothly curved outline defining the top of the "head" and another at the bottom of the "chin" without the meandering quality visible in the above image.

The difference between the Face on Mars and Middle Butte on Idaho is illustrated in the two images below, in which the images of both landforms have been reduced in size to about 9 meter resolution. On the Face image, dotted lines are drawn around the continuous smooth curves and straight lines are drawn along the straight edges. Most of the western edges of the Face landform and some smaller sections of the eastern edges are actually straight down to at least twice the resolution shown.Try finding a continous curve without "jiggles" or any pair of edges that run as parallel on Middle Butte (if you can find any straight edges at all).

Actually, I have seen much more symmetrical landforms of conical shape than Middle Butte, Idaho on Mars in MGS images. I assume such landforms are volcanic cones. A conical shape is associated with volcanoes by everyone, and the action of gravity on molten rock that produces such shapes is well understood.

Symmetry in nature is far from uncommon. Planets are nearly perfect spheres, volcanoes are conical, and craters are circular. But with the exception of certain landforms on other planets such as the Mars Face, symmetry that is different from the symmetry of other landforms previously encountered always draws the interest of scientists. They never claimed that the symmetry of craters needed no explanation because lots of other things in nature were symmetrical, or because the circles formed by craters "reminded" them of the circular disks of planets and so must have a similar origin. Instead, they searched for an explanation that fit the known facts.

For the Face, the explanation that it is an igneous intrusion does not fit the facts that there are straight edges that run for hundreds of meters and that are parallel to each other even though separated by hundreds of meters. Molten rock will tend to flow out radially from its source. How does molten maintain straightness and parallelism over such distances?

An alternative natural explanation -- that the Face is a mesa formed by water or wind erosion does not appear to fit very well, either. When viewed from the side, the "table top" of a mesa looks impressively level and parallel to the surface of the terrain at its base. Obviously this is simply due to the fact that the mesa top is the remnant surface of a former plains area, and the force of gravity tends to produce planar, horizontal surfaces. But when viewed from overhead as in the image here, the impression of linearity and parallelism disappears and a rather haphazard -looking natural form is seen.

I think the time has come for science to start searching for a real explanation for the Face on Mars. The public's patience with the sophistry from JPL's public relations office may eventually wear thin.

--- Lan Fleming

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