Planet MarsMars Art Gallery

Faking an Alien Airport Complex on Mars

Martian Airport Complex
Fig 1. The Martian Airport Complex by Hand

This article is all about an image of Mars captured by the Mariner 9 orbiter. What makes this image novel is that it has been cited by a number of web sites as being an artificial structure built by aliens. It has been referred to as "The Hub" and viewers are typically asked to compare it to an airport terminal. Shown in Fig. 1 is a hand drawn rendition I created of this feature. Now my version does not look as artificial as that featured on the web sites that I spoke of but a) I did not want to copy someone else's image and use it on my site and b) I did not want to link to their page and generate traffic for them. Hence the crude rendition here. While I feel that this Mariner 9 image has artistic merit, it reminds me less of an airport terminal and more of some primitive art form produced by our distant ancestors.

The task that I wanted to undertake was to see if I could duplicate the image shown on these web sites myself. The software I used in this process was NASAVIEW for opening the raw Mariner 9 image (.IMG) file and Photoshop for all subsequent manipulation.

Step one in the process was to identify and acquire the raw version of this Mariner 9 image. Raw data image files are available from I determined that the image in question was 07938353.IMG taken on Feb. 10 1972 and that the feature shown is located near 1.9S, 186.4W.

Fig. 2 Raw Mariner 9 image 07938353<
Fig. 2 Raw Mariner 9 image 07938353

Figure 2 shows the raw image at its original full size and with no manipulation except to crop away the extraneous areas from the picture. As you can see the image is noisy and has a very low contrast. My first step was to do what I could to remove the noise in the image. Removing the noise resulted in a minimal transformation of the raw image since all I did was to replace those pixels whose DN value was far removed from that of the adjacent pixels.

Fig. 3 All Clean
Fig. 3 All Clean

Using Photoshop, I proceeded to remove all the noise that was in the image. The results of this cleaning process can be seen in Figure 3. Note that the image is small, definitely smaller than the versions that I had seen on the web. Also, the orientation of the feature is wrong.

Fig. 4 Rotated and Enlarged
Fig. 4 Rotated and Enlarged

The raw image needs to be rotated counterclockwise by 90 degrees to get it to match what I had seen elsewhere. I was able to match the size of the other image I was using as a source by enlarging the raw image by 213 percent. The result of these two operations is shown in Figure 4.

The final step in the process was to try and replicate the very high contrast and straight lines seen in the reference image I was using. For this I used a combination of the Photoshop Levels and Curves tools. Using the Levels tool I stretched the histogram so that dark grays would map to black and light grays would map to white. I then used the Curves tool to increase the number of light colored pixels that would map to white and dark colored pixels that would map to black. The end result of this process is seen in Figure 5 below.

Fig. 5 The Finished Martian Airport
Fig. 5 The Finished Martian Airport Complex

Well I must say that I was disappointed with my results. My image didn't look nearly as artificial as the image on display at the various "the aliens built it" web sites. How could this be? Did they deliberately manipulate the image until they achieved the result they desired?

No - I don't think so. Here is what I think happened. This image is contained in the book Mars as Viewed by Mariner 9. The illustration used in the book has been enlarged and rotated counterclockwise by 90%. This image was printed with a lot of contrast in it. My guess is that the image the various sites are using is a 2nd or 3rd generation version of the image that was printed in the book. Whether photocopied and scanned or scanned directly, each step in the process has resulted in some loss of image integrity. It is this loss of image integrity that has resulted in the image being portrayed as an artificial structure.

Closing Thoughts

As I looked and looked at this image it seemed to me that it looked less like an airport and more like a face. In fact a face well known to many, especially cartoonists who loved to make caricatures that emphasized his nose.

Nixon on Mars

I am of course referring to former President of the United States Richard M. Nixon. Look closely at the image above. I have colored the eyes blue, placed a red line where the mouth is, and darkened out the area surrounding the face thus making the hair obvious. And of course the nose needs no highlighting as its presence is outstanding.

I hope that you have found this article useful and enlightening. Having made it this far, you may be interested in reading the short article Critical Thinking About Mars.

The End

2005 Jim Plaxco,