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Alex R. Blackwell

Frankly, I'll let the reference to Plait's website suffice for my view of Hoagland. I have no desire to waste any more time discussing him or his, in my opinion, kooky views. As for the PFS issue...

David Sadler wrote:
Your attempt to sidestep, by appealing to peer-review, the ESA's posting of the PFS spectrum clearly indicating NH3, fails to answer this question.

Why would the ESA do such a thing --- publish a JUDGMENT of the results without publishing the raw data? Why publish it at all, prior to peer-review?

Alex Blackwell writes:
Posting preliminary spectra on a website is not "publication" in the scientific sense. If you believe so, then we're wasting our time discussing the issue. I have no idea what the PFS team has really found vis a vis NH3. I only know that the PI of the instrument has stated publicly and privately that he has not found ammonia. Whether that means he is being cautious before making a formal annoucement lest the largely uninformed and uneducated public jump to conclusions or whether he is truly struggling in trying to nail down an ammonia signature in the spectra is anyone's guess. As for science, I wait until data have passed through review before asserting "results."

At any rate, your assertion that the spectra "clearly indicat[e] NH3" is interesting. Perhaps I should wait for your promised "longer piece" where I'm sure you and Hoagland will demonstrate your familiarity and expertise in spectroscopy by mentioning, at the very least, such things as atmospherically corrected ratioed spectra, flat-field spectra, systematic coverage, radiometric accuracy, multiple emission angles, quantitative emissivities, etc.

Forgive me, but on this issue I'll defer to Formisano et al., not Hoagland and Sadler. I'm certainly not trying to appeal to authority but the former are the experts who have made their positions clear. You and Hoagland have, so far, given nothing more than hand waving assertions insinuating conspiracies and coverups. But hey, that's my opinion. I am merely a postdoctoral researcher in geology and planetary sciences. Who am I to argue with you and Hoagland. You two are pros, right?

Alex R. Blackwell

Rick Sterling wrote:
If ESA believes it only has a limited amount of evidence supporting Mars Ammonia & needs further analysis of the PFS data to determine if ammonia is actually in the Martian atmosphere, why doesn't it say that on its website[?]

Alex Blackwell writes:
I don't know, Rick. I certainly do not speak for ESA or Formisano et al. I have merely tried to relate my understanding of the "ammonia issue" based on my conversations with direct participants in the mission. Their views, as quoted in Nature and the Globe and Mail, for example, sound reasonable to me.

Lance Niederhaus

wow, the tempers seem to be flaring here. finally some excitement. i am not a scientifically educated person, just a regular guy with some interest in space exploration. i enjoy this website and have been viewing it since around this january. i am glad there is someone like hoagland who inspires the spark of imagination and what-ifs. i do not know if what he asserts is true, i guess no one really does.

what i would really like to know is;


sorry for the run-on and thank you for letting me post...

Charles Schmidt

Dear Lance,
Please don't confuse anything Hoagland asserts with science. The real scientific devbates about Mars are so much more interesting. Hoagland would have you believe anything; it's so bad it's almost embarrasing to read his site. If you want real wonder, try Pale Blue Dot or A Demon-Haunted World, both by Carl Sagan. Mapping MArs by the host of this site, Oliver Morton, is the finest book about Mars you could ever imagine. I guarantee it far surpasses Hoagland. CS

Rick sterling

Regarding Sagan's book "Pale Blue Dot" on page 283 Dr. Sagan states, "The most exciting, but perhaps least likely, outcome of Mars exploration: the discovery of an unknown ancient civilization. Here(drawling included), a globe of Earth as it appeared 250 million years ago is found, inscribed in an unknown hieroglyphic writing". Secondly in "The Demon Haunted World" Carl Sagan states on pages 55-56 "These(Cydonia) features merit closer attention with higher resolution. Much more detailed photos of the 'Face' would surely settle issues of symmetry and help resolve the debate between geology and monumental sculpture... In the case(most unlikely in my view) that the nearby structures were once a city, that fact should also be obvious on closer examination... Unlike the UFO phenomenon,we have here the opportunity for a definitive experiment. This kind of hypothesis is falsifiable, a property that brings it well into the scientific arena... I hope that forthcoming American and Russian missions to Mars,especially orbiters with high resolution television cameras, will make a special effort--among hundreds of other scientific questions--to look much closer at the pyramids and what some people call the Face and the city..." Finally, NASA Technical Menorandum 102363-Extraterrestrial Life in the Universe by Robert W. Graham of NASA's Lewis Research Center states in its Mars section," The terrain suggests that at one time there was once great rivers and oceans on Mars. However, no liquid water exists on Mars now. Life may have existed on this planet but there is no conclusive proof of its existence today. In an interesting but controversial book Richard C. Hoagland(ref. 2), the author proposes that some of the NASA pictures suggest that an ancient civilization may have existed on Mars"

Rick Sterling

The last sentence of my last post should have read, "In an interesting but controversial book by Richard C. Hoagland(ref. 2),the author proposes that some of the NASA pictures suggest that an ancient civilization may have existed there."

Charles Schmidt

Unfortunate for Carl that he didn't live to see the MGS MOC images.

Bruce Moomaw

Well, we've gotten the photos of the face that Sagan wanted, and they show not a trace of anything artificial-looking. But then, I saw that Viking photo when it first came out, and what I noticed was:

(A) That one hummock (about which I thought, "Gee, that looks very vaguely like a face") was surrounded by literally hundreds of other hummocks with hollows and grooves in every conceivable configuration, making it bloody unlikely that there wouldn't be one hill in there that DIDN'T look like a face. (Most of the Face-pushers don't show that whole Viking photo to show this context for the supposed face.)

(B) The photo had a number of black specks scattered randomly all over it due to marks on the camera's vidicon plate -- and one of them, by very bad luck, was in exactly the right position on that hill to look like a nostril. Remove that and it looks MUCH less like a face.

Since then, we've found TWO craters on Mars shaped exactly like valentine hearts (plus another one on Eros!); the famous giant "Happy Face" crater (aka "Galle"); one mesa that looks uncannily like a bas-relief of Sen. Edward kennedy (Teddy has remarked publicly on this); and a valley-mesa combination that looks exactly like a 100-km wide portrait of Kermit the Frog sitting on a branch and singing. Which -- as I've remarked here before -- provides solid evidence, by Hoagland's standards, not only that there were intelligent Martians but that they worshipped Muppets.

The not-exactly-surprising moral is that, when you're dealing with a planet that has literally millions of geological features scattered all over it, it would be fantastically unlikely for a few of them NOT to look like some artificial object. (Remember New Hampshire's "Old Man of the Mountain" -- whose face, by an unfortunate coincidence, fell off the cliff last year just when a commemorative quarter had been put out on him.)

Alex R. Blackwell

At this rate, Oliver is going to have to change the name of the blog to MainlyHoagland. Far be it from me to offer moderation advice, but frankly, I came here to read about and discuss real Mars science issues. There are other forums for Mars psuedoscience.

Rick Sterling

The Old Man On The Mountain is incorrect because we now have many Viking,MGS MOC & Mars Odyssey photos in which the Face maintains its facial appearence over a wide range of lighting angles. Thus it's not a "trick of light & shadow".(Dr. Carl Sagan in The Demon Haunted World page 53 confirmed the fact that the "Face" is not a trick of light & shadow.) The Old Man of the Mountain does not maintain its appearence over a wide range of lighting angles. Contrary to popular opinion, MGS did not settle the artificiality argument. How do I know this? Dr. Ed Weiler's letter to Peter Gersten that is published in the fifth edition of Hoagland's The Monuments of Mars confirms this fact. Pages 36-38 of the Author's Forward(2001 Edition) to Monuments of Mars contains Ed Weiler's letter. I will quote several sections of the letter. Ed Weiler says, " NASA encourages the development of multiple working hypothesis models for the formation of such features and in this case the new observations(MGS MOC)have been publicly released to permit furthur debate about controversial and enigmatic landforms on Mars. Dr. Michael Malin, the Principal Investigator of the MGS Mars Orbiter Camera, has provided his experienced interpretation of the new images. but NASA welcomes additional opinions. Indeed, NASA promotes innovative analysis of such spacecraft data by competitive peer-review, as well as open discussion in public meetings and by all members of the interested public..." Later Dr. Weiler states, "NASA welcomes a variety of opinions about the origin of enigmatic landforms on Mars as observed by the instruments aboard the Mars Global Surveyor. NASA relies upon the peer-review process and competitive peer-review to fund analysis of the data it aquires and awaits newly published(or proposals to undertake such)interpretations of the Cydonia face feature. At present the Scientific advisory committees that formally advise NASA have not interpreted the Cydonia feature as evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. NASA will continue to explore all possibilities for the origin of landscapes on Mars using the open process it has traditionally utilized, as well as by timely release of all images acquired by operational spacecraft, including the MGS."

Lance Niederhaus

i didn't intend on sparking such a debate and i do enjoy the real science opinions and intelligent postings that normally occur on this site.

so, the question is, why didnt anyone offer an answer to my question posted yesterday asking if the ammonia findings could be proved out by earth based measurements just like the methane findings were?

i have to believe that the answer to that would be very interesting.


I believe that attempts have been made to detect ammonia from Earth without success. That doesn't mean it isn't there but as Alex has pointed out detecting and CONFIRMING small amounts of trace gases is a difficult and lengthy process.

Alex R. Blackwell

Lance Niederhaus wrote:
so, the question is, why didnt anyone offer an answer to my question posted yesterday asking if the ammonia findings could be proved out by earth based measurements just like the methane findings were?

Alex Blackwell writes
Well, I didn't realize that it was a requirement that everyone's questions be answered. That said, maybe the lack of independent confirmation for ammonia is due to, say, extremely low concentrations, noisy spectra from ground-based observers, or even that no one has mounted a systematic effort to look for it. Maybe the ammonia bands, if they are present, are being overwhelmed. Maybe there is no ammonia present, though I tend to doubt that explanation. Maybe spectral analysis, despite the armchair experts' contention to the contrary, is actually very difficult and labor intensive. Simple common sense would seem to suggest that any of these is a reasonable conclusion, certainly, more reasonable than others' insinuating conspiracies or coverups. In fact, those "others" could simply look for themselves and publish *their* own data. I suspect, however, that this is not as fun (or as easy) as sitting in the cheap seats.

Rick Sterling

In 1993 the technical journal "Planetary & Space Science" reported the tentative finding of formaldehyde in the Martian atmosphere by the Phobos 2 spacecraft. The spacecraft used the Auguste infrared spectrometer to make this discovery. The URL for this discovery is http://adsabs.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-bib_query?1993P%26SS...41..441K

Oliver Morton

Gosh, what a lot of comments. A few replies:
On the face -- it does indeed look like a face. I remember one evening walking around Malin's offices and being quite taken by how, with the lights off, a big picture of the mesa (a blow up of the classic MGS image that shows the feature to be an eroded mesa) still looked eerily facelike in the gloom. But it doesn't look *very* like a face, and it certainly doesn't look as much like a face as a big sculpture of a face should look. It looks like a face in the way that oddly face-like rocks look like faces, and in the way clouds sometimes look like whales, and so on.
On misquoting Carl -- Rick, I don't have my copy of "Pale Blue Dot" to hand, but the passage that you quote seems to me to be referring to a painting by Pat Rawlings called "Mars Archaeology" (aka The Key). In the painting, Rawlings imagines the discovery of an alien artifact on Mars. But no one says such a discovery has been made -- it's a painting. The demon-haunted-world quotes predate the MGS mission; I think the MOC images of Cydonia are just what Sagan would have had in mind as tests of the artifact hypothesis, and I think they are tests it failed.
On the face and the need for more moderation of the comments -- I am loathe to start removing comments (other than comment spam, which I take care of whenever I notice it). But I would be grateful if people would drop the face issue for a bit. I don't think anyone's going to make any converts here. So if you could stop that argument the management would be grateful.
On the detection of ammonia -- As I read Formisano's abstract, he says that ammonia is "a good target" for detection, if it is there; not "a good target" for having already been detected. The ESA site shows a rather rough spectrum with a tentative ammonia feature labelled (it doesn't show "raw data", and it's not stuff that anyone could use as the basis for a thorough alternative analysis). To refer to this as "definitive", as David and Richard Hoagland do, is unwarranted. Among other things, note that very big CO2 feature right next to it -- that's the sort of thing you need to model and number-crunch incredibly carefully to make sense of, and if you don't do that you can't realy be sure of whats going on in smaller features directly adjacent. Alex Blackwell is quite right to stress that this is really hard, time consuming stuff. It is entirely consistent with almost everything we know to think that the labelled feature sparked some interest in February, and further analysis convinced the PFS team that it was not in fact ammonia.
On earthly follow-up of the ammonia -- You need a very good telescope, a very good spectrometer and the allocation of viewing time to even start and try to do such a thing. The spectrometer that Krasnopolsky et al used for their methane work, probably the best in the world for this sort of thing, has been decommissioned. Mike Mumma is still using observing time at other facilities to try and nail down an absolutely solid methane detection, and I think that shows a sensible prioritisation. I don't know of any other group in a position to try for the ammonia. as a planet, we don't have a whole lot of capacity for doing this sort of thing. (And let's stop and remember that it's rather wonderful that we have any capacity for it at all.)
On the Phobos formaldehyde detection -- subsequent Earth based work (By Mumma and Kransoplosky and colleagues, IIRC) failed to see formaldehyde at the level that the Phobos team had claimed, and the claim was subsequently pretty much withdrawn. Also,formaldehyde is less interesting than methane (which I currently kind of believe in) and ammonia (which I currently see no reason to believe in). There are abiogenic ways of making formaldehyde when incoming radiation zaps solid state CO2 and H2O mixed together in the ice caps -- it doesn't need volcanism, let alone life.
On the low posting rate -- I'm sorry. I'll see what I can do about upping the tempo just a little.

Gunnar Glitscher

Oliver Morton wrote:

'It is entirely consistent with almost everything we know to think that the labelled feature sparked some interest in February, and further analysis convinced the PFS team that it was not in fact ammonia.'

In my opinion that's a reasonable interpretation and I guess there would have been less disconcertment if the tentative spectral ammonia feature would have been labeled with a question mark...

Rick Sterling

In the 2003 research paper By V. Formisano & S. K. Atreya,Etc. entitled "Atmospheric Photochemistry Above Possible Martian Hot Spots", the researchers still discuss the Phobos 2 Formaldehyde discovery as "a tentative detection". They state that this tentative detection has yet to be confirmed & if confirmed, it could imply that there is a "large flux of Methane from a localized source in the Martian atmosphere". I believe this finding is still an open scientific question. In addition the 1999 research paper by Benjamin Weiss ,Yuk Yung & Kenneth Nealson Of Cal Tech entitled "Atmospheric Energy For Subsurface Life On Mars" states, "Formaldehyde,which has no known geological source on Mars & has a lifetime in the Martian atmosphere of only 13 hours, may have already been detected by the Phobos spacecraft although this is uncertain".

Oliver Morton

Rick, I've taken this up in a separate post.

David Sadler

Formisano's Twilight Zone
Part 2: An Official Announcement of
"Life on Mars" ... in September?
by Richard C. Hoagland and David Sadler
Full article on my website.

International Mars Conference - Ischia Island, Italy - September 2004
Mod Date: Thursday, August 5, 2004
• V. Formisano: PFS Observation of methane Formaldehyde and HS: Extant Life on Mars?
• Speech: G. Bignami (ESA SSAC Chair): "Life and planets, myths and science"
• Keynote Speech (1/2 hour): S. Atreya: Methane on Mars – Sources, Sinks, and Implications for Life

David Sadler


why are scientist interested in amonia so much

Bruce Moomaw

To Amanda: because it's an EXTREMELY unstable compound when exposed to solar UV light -- it breaks down much more quickly than methane, which doesn't last very long itself -- and there also are few geological processes that create it. So if we find any significant traces of ammonia in Mars' atmosphere -- however tiny -- it will be a virtual certainty that the ammonia is being manufactured by living germs.

David Brin

Oliver, david brin here. The old abq address sems to be no good.

Want a review copy of my new book STAR WARS ON TRIAL? (I am prosecutor, of course.)

Confirm contact info and thrive.


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