A Closer Look at a Distant Place
by R. Nicks
Upon viewing the incredible color image, dubbed the Presidential
Panorama, taken from the Mars Pathfinder lander showing the Twin
Peaks it can be discerned that there seems to be some unusual, anomalous
characteristics of the two hills that warrant further (closer) evaluation.
It is noteworthy that the name Twin Peaks is somewhat misleading,
as the peaks are really quite distinct and separate in form and attendant
detail; they really are not twins in the sense of their landform.
Although, they may be more similar in terms of their general composition--an
assumption that for the purposes of this preliminary interpretation seems
reasonable because it would require a considerably more complicated scenario
to ascribe differing geologic composition to two features such as these
in such close proximity to one another. Strictly from a geologic/geomorphic
perspective, the following questions come to mind, each of which is followed
by a brief discussion.
1) What natural process could explain these hills (and the
nob to the north, out of view of the picture but visible in the landing
area photo-map) being the only features that rise above such a vast plain
of hundreds of square miles?
It is conceivable that the catastrophic inundation of what may
have been mountainous or at least hilled terrain was such that all of
the preexisting topography was buried save the two peaks and the nob,
but that seems a bit coincidental. It is also plausible that the area
was a plain prior to flooding, and the two peaks were the only areas of
topographic relief within miles; examples of such relatively solitary
features do exist on the high plains and in the southwest. However, in
these cases the features are generally more similar to one another, and
are typically erosion remnants, ancient reefs, products of diapirism,
or so called breccia pipes. All of these have relatively easily identifiable
signatures, and none of them are readily assigned to the characteristics
seen in the twin peaks of the subject image.
2) Why is the left hill pointed on top, and the right hill
This seems a bit more difficult to explain by natural processes,
but is far from conclusive that the features are anything but natural.
It seems reasonable that two features of similar size and composition
(an assumption as stated above) in such close proximity to one another,
subjected to a catastrophic flooding event would likely suffer similar
if not nearly identical destructive forces resulting in their aftermath
appearance being essentially the same. Such is obviously not the case.
It is also possible that the upstream hill (the one on the left) may have
had an original shape that was more angular than that of the downstream
hill, and therefore tended to part the waters, so-to-speak, much like
the bow of a battleship. This could then result in a convergence of the
swirling mass on the downstream peak delivering an ice tong double
impact with combined forces that simply ripped the downstream hill apart.
Another possible explanation although fraught with some
difficulty is that the right hill is simply older that the left hill,
and has been subjected to a longer period of exposure to whatever natural
erosional forces are present; both physical, and chemical. If this were
the case however, it seems unusual that the older hill would apparently
display more detail than the younger hill. If it was more eroded, then
it would be expected that as a landform it would be more rounded and any
detail would be subdued. That is not the case. It is true that the top
of the hill is flatter, and the slopes are less than those displayed by
the hill on the left, but it is also true that the face of the right hill
retains some peculiar horizontal and vertical color differentiation that
is more well developed than similar linearity on the left hill. It is
also noteworthy that the slope angles of the right hill, where not masked
by the flood-deposited debris, appear to be the original slope
3) What mechanism could create the variant breaks in slope
from the left hill as compared to the right hill?
There are clear breaks in slope in the saddle between the hills
on both sides where the material comprising the saddle fill has been deposited
adjacent to both hills. Close inspection of the left side of the left
hill shows an apparent break in slope as one traverses from the top of
the hill down the slope to a point where the slope angle becomes flatter.
However, the angle of the hill from the top to its base can be seen to
continue beyond this apparent break in slope along the same line as the
steeper natural slope exposed in the upper portion of the feature. The
apparent break appears to be flood debris plastered on the back side of
the hill. Just to the right of the left edge of the left hill there appears
to be another edge, evident only by very subtle changes in coloration,
extending toward the viewer that gives the impression of a faceted feature;
not unlike looking at the edge of a pyramid.
The right edge of the right slope provides some interesting
information, in that it too continues downward along the upper slope angle
beyond the break in slope that comprises the horizon. There appears to
be little or no debris deposited on this side of the right hill. This
could be due to the plucking action on the down stream side. This process
is much like that observed in a rapidly flowing stream where the downstream
side of boulders is scoured out, whereas the upstream side is subject
to deposition. One might ask why then is the right side of the left hill
intact, and not similarly scoured. A possible explanation is that the
catastrophic flooding from left to right first encountered the left hill,
and as it hit the second (downstream) hill the concomitant vortices, and
backsplash, if you will, filled in along the right side of the left hill.
Indeed, if one looks at the break in slope along the right side of the
left hill, it can be seen that in the saddle adjacent to the left hill,
the debris apron is nearly horizontal in profile.
4) What could cause the faint but discernible orthogonal
pattern of lighter color that seems to emerge from the center of the face
of the right hill?
In view of such catastrophic forces that both hills suffered,
it is difficult to explain how one might retain orthogonal structure in
a natural feature, if indeed that is what is being seen. Parallel linear
features of nearly any orientation could be developed as a result of rapidly
moving water, however, retention of similar features at right angles to
such parallel structures, as well as at right angles to the onrushing
forces of the flood, are not so easily dismissed. One possible explanation
is that the orthogonal features represent healed joint sets. But,
if that were the case even more questions arise as to why similar joint
sets are not readily discernible on the left hill, and why the infilling
material in the joints would show such differential and preferential strength
along vertical lines. The same problem arises with a chemical weathering
answer to the phenomenon. If it was chemical weathering, how is it that
the left peak was spared.
Another possibility for a feature displaying linear characteristics
at right angles, is that of columnar jointing of basalt flows. Such features
are readily observed in the Columbia Plateau basalts at many places, especially
along the Columbia River in Washington. However, the expression of columnar
jointing is coherent within each basalt flow, and is not generally continuous
across individual and separate flow boundaries.
5) Why does the surface of the left peak seem to be so much
smoother than that of the right peak?
At this preliminary point in the analysis, I do not have a good
answer to that question. Suffice it to say, however, that perhaps the
explanation given above that the original shape and orientation of the
left hill may have served to protect it somewhat from the catastrophic
onslaught, that is to say it may have presented an edge to the onrushing
water that effectively split the water and divided the force of the impact.
Dr. Peter Smith in one of his press conferences postulated
that the right hill is a debris pile. This is a possibility. However,
it is puzzling that there appears to be a relatively clear contact between
debris, which drapes both hills in the saddle between the two features,
and the in-place hills. Furthermore, the debris shows no linear features
whereas the in place materials of the right hill clearly show some evidence
of nearly horizontal parallel lineations as well as lineations at nearly
right angles to the horizontal. Regardless, what can be seen is that the
edges of the two hills seem to be somewhat different regarding their surface
tortuosity. The left hill seems to be smoother and have a faceted appearance,
whereas the right hill is more step-like.
It seems reasonable that others may have been interested
in the difference between the two hills because the first high-resolution
image put on the NASA Ames web site was of the top of the hill on the
right in the Presidential Panorama; although it is puzzling to me why
the image was one third hill, and two thirds sky. Regardless, that high-resolution
image just barely includes along its lower boundary the orthogonal nature
of some of the features of the hill. Close inspection of that image reveals
blocky, yet not chaotic orthogonal structure. This is similarly difficult
to readily explain as a result of natural processes as outlined in the
I have outlined some of the features that I find most interesting,
and worthy of further study, especially since NASA has stated that the
mission is a success, and that they have accomplished what they set out
to accomplish. Because there undoubtedly will be continued interest and
variant opinions about what the images show, I am concerned that we may
miss a great opportunity to put to rest some of the questions that I as
well as others have raised. Although it is possible in most cases to develop
scenarios involving natural processes that would result in the features
seen on the images, it is also possible that some of the features are
the result of artificial constructs; sufficient evidence is simply not
yet available to say which.
The lander is on Mars. The mission is complete, and a success.
It is now essential that some of the many questions being raised be answered,
and they can be if we simply take the Sojourner and go look. At this point,
it is truly immaterial whether the features are natural or artificial.
What is important is that we find out which is the case. If the observed
features are natural, then we need to understand the processes that created
them in terms of terrestrial analogs--that is exciting. If they are not
natural, then we have an equally exciting future ahead. Suffice it to
say however, that in many aspects, the features do look like nearly buried
remnants of pyramids; the left hill being faceted and more akin to the
general shape of the large pyramidal structures so often associated with
Egypt, and the right hill more step-like and generally associated with
the shape of pyramidal structures in Mexico. Regardless, natural or artificial
at this stage of investigation is not the point. The point is we are there,
we have the capability to look closely at these features, and others,
and we should go look.
After viewing scores of posts in the conference center
of the Enterprise Mission web site I believe it may be worthwhile to try
to provide a modicum of perspective relative to the geologic approach
and assessment of features observed in some of the Pathfinder images.
As a geologist, my analysis, not unlike other technical scientific analyses,
begins with the literature, and whatever information can be brought to
bear on a particular subject. In the instant case the subject being the
planet Mars, and more specifically some of the recent Pathfinder Mission
images being distributed by way of the internet. To become bogged down
at this early stage of analysis in prolonged discussions of imaging technique
and computer compression artifacts, is to some degree to miss the point
The point is this. There exists on some of the early
Pathfinder images features, and items that are difficult to explain using
only a geologic model, and the same features or items become obscured
(literally covered up) or more poorly represented in later images. Furthermore,
there is an eerie silence regarding some of NASA's own multiple working
hypotheses regarding the geology of what is being seen.
My approach to and assessment of the Pathfinder images began by
trying to identify any anomalous features or relationships of features
to surrounding terrain. The first image that I studied in some detail
was the Presidential Panorama--especially that portion of the panorama
that includes the Twin Peaks (see A Closer Look...). Finding some
anomalous characteristics on the panorama, I then sought to look with
a more discerning eye in the near field. After all, it seemed reasonable
to me that images of nearby objects or features would logically be depicted
with greater clarity and therefore perhaps more detail. I was not disappointed.
Close examination of the images broadcast live on television by
CNN did in fact show some peculiar features in the near field. This was
not enough however to satisfy me that what I was seeing was not some manifestation
of a technique or approach to imaging with which I am not familiar, or
some vestige of the multiple electronic contortions required to
televise such images. So, I began to search for a corroborating image
that would also show the same objects and features, in the same anomalous
surroundings. Indeed, on frame 80881 downloaded from the NASA Ames Research
Center web site there are several (I've identified over two dozen) objects
that seemed to be anomalous from a geologic perspective, and all of the
objects seen on the CNN broadcast can be identified in the 80881 image.
To aid my investigative approach in trying to understand the geologic
nature of the scene and place the anomalous objects within a geologic
context, I then tried to categorize the various items and features into
broad groups. These were briefly discussed in my video presented at the
Pasadena Conference. To repeat them here the groupings are: 1) Manifolding,
2) Canisters, 3) Pointy stuff (sorry, but that was all that came to mind
in describing these items), and 4) Mechanisms. Interestingly enough, all
of those categories of items can be seen on the CNN broadcast image as
well as elsewhere in the 80881 image. At this point, I believed that I
did indeed have the corroborating data that would support the anomalous
nature of some of the items being observed.
Now it seemed to be time to try to articulate just what it is
about these items that seems to make them anomalous--in some way seemingly
unnatural. In brief, it is internally consistent and multiple
geometries and symmetries. What do I mean by that? Well, I'll try
to explain. In a single item (many, in fact most of the items that I consider
anomalous) there can be found multiple combinations of radial geometry,
orthogonal geometry, parabolic geometry, as well as radial symmetry, and
Nature produces some amazing and wondrous geometry and symmetry,
but for the most part those geometries and symmetries tend to occur singularly
or at best as a doublet i.e. two symmetries or geometries within the same
item. For example: A tree, in general has obvious bilateral symmetry and
when cut down one only has to view the rings of the trunk to see well
developed circular geometry. Yet, one of the items that I chose to group
as a canister has orthogonal symmetry (rectangular handles--horizontally
opposed), radial or circular symmetry, and a parabolic nose at
the end of a cylindrical object with a base at right angles to the longitudinal
axis of the item. If these things are indeed a byproduct of some poorly
known geologic process, I am at a loss to identify a terrestrial analog.
Continuing, I looked closely at later images such as 80904,
and to my distress, I found that the items that I was seeking to observe
were greatly changed, or indeed covered over--they quite simply were not
the same as on the earlier 80881 image. Of course, I am aware of the difference
of elevation of the camera with some of the later images, and the commensurate
potential for paralax-type misidentifications. Many such items I have
dismissed as natural or at least not anomalous, because of these
very phenomena. Yet repeatedly, items of anomalous interest to me are
blurred, changed or covered in later images--images that one would expect
to be improving with time not deteriorating.
In summary, the items and features that to me are anomalous
from a geologic perspective are those items or features containing multiple,
internally consistent geometries and symmetries. My approach to identifying
the anomalous characteristics of the various features and items is the
same general approach used by any other serious investigator trying to
develop reasonable working hypotheses in an effort to understand what
makes things the way they are.