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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2004 > Feb > Feb 12

Space Photo Contents Often Are All In Eye Of The

From: Frank Warren <frank-warren.nul>
Date: Thu, 12 Feb 2004 07:43:09 -0800
Fwd Date: Thu, 12 Feb 2004 14:28:39 -0500
Subject: Space Photo Contents Often Are All In Eye Of The

Source: The Baltimore Sun


Feb 12, 2004

Space Photo Contents Often Are All In Eye Of The Beholder

When it comes to space, seeing is not necessarily believing.

Consider the photo that landed on my desk the other day. At
first it looks like one of the standard Mars shots that NASA has
been posting online for more than a month now.

It shows the front of the Spirit rover in the foreground and the
now-famous ruddy, rock-strewn Martian landscape. But look a bit
further into the distance and you'll see them - a Starbucks and
a McDonald's arch, looking quite at home.

A friend who found the photo on the Web passed a print on to me,
and it generated quite a few laughs at the office - along with
some dark oaths from photographers to the effect that this kind
of junk is why people don't believe the pictures they see

Meanwhile, there's nothing like a torrent of legitimate photos
from space to bring out the UFO freaks, conspiracy theorists and
fanatics who claim to see ancient cities, faces and religious
images in pictures of the Martian surface and faraway galaxies.

You can blame the fake stuff on digital photography, which
records images as a grid of tiny, colored dots stored on a
computer's hard drive. The technology has spawned software that
can manipulate images in ways that are invisible to the naked

You may have already done this yourself. Virtually all photo-
editing programs come with a feature that "removes" red-eye from
flash exposures and changes the eye color to something
resembling reality.

Microsoft's Picture It!, which I use frequently, has a wonderful
little feature called "fix blemishes." Put the cursor on a
pimple, wart, scar or shaving nick, click the button, and it
disappears. I call it "digital Clearasil."

And those are just basic tools. With the advanced features
available in many programs, it's not surprising that images from
space have been tempting targets for pranksters, most of whom
use their talent - such as it is - to create visual puns and
wordless satire on contemporary life.

After I saw the first picture, I did a Google search and found a
half-dozen silly Mars shots, all of which took NASA photos and
superimposed images of Starbucks, McDonald's and Wal-Marts.
Obviously many minds think along the same lines.

With one exception, they were obviously "PhotoShopped," a term
photographers have invented for images edited with Adobe's
popular and powerful software. But the best of the bunch, a
Starbucks cup half buried in the Martian sand, was the work of a
real expert.

On the other hand, there are folks out there who think NASA has
already doctored the photos it posts, because - as we all know -
 the government is always hiding something. These are
undoubtedly children of the people who knew for a fact that Neil
Armstrong's walk on the moon back in 1969 was concocted on a
Hollywood movie set. Just do a Google search for "fake Mars
photos" and follow a few links that turn up. But buckle your
seat belt before you click - you're entering the Twilight Zone.

More interesting, and just as entertaining, are folks who see
strange things in photos from space. Skeptics have coined a term
for this phenomenon - pareidolia, an illusion or misperception
involving a vague or obscure stimulus that's perceived as
something clear and distinct.

Pareidolia is common enough, and predates the space program by a
millennium or two. We've all seen the Man in the Moon, or faces
and images of ships and elephants in cloud formations (When I
was a young reporter, I once wrote a story about a gardener who
grew a green pepper that looked like Richard Nixon, but it never
made the paper.)

In 1978, some 8,000 people made pilgrimages to the home of a New
Mexico woman who discovered a picture of Jesus in a burned
tortilla. And in 2001, thousands saw the face of Satan captured
in a CNN video and Associated Press photos of smoke billowing
from the World Trade Center. (For a great collection these and
more example of pareidolia, visit http://thefolk lorist.com)

Space seems to hold a particular fascination for pareidoliacs.
Some argue that the most famous was the distinguished American
astronomer Percival Lowell, who in 1894 built one of the first
modern observatories on a hill high above the clear air of
Flagstaff, Ariz. His observations of Mars convinced him that its
strange markings were "canals" built by an ancient civilization
- a notion that persisted for more than half a century.

NASA disproved the canal theory beyond a doubt with its first
Mars missions, but the agency's own photos - now available in
quantity and high-resolution quality on the Web - have inspired
similar flights of fancy in a wired world.

One of the most famous was the Hubble Space Telescope's
spectacular 1995 photo of the Eagle Nebula - 7,000 light-years
from Earth - where many of the faithful discovered what appeared
to be an image of Jesus.

Cheryl Gundy, spokeswoman for the Space Telescope Institute in
Baltimore, remembers that one well. "We certainly didn't go out
of our way in captions to say it was the face of God," she said.

But she agreed that these things are in the eye of the beholder.
"I think if you look hard enough and you want to see it, you
will see it," she said.



you'll find the original photo.

Six years later, Ufologists got their hopes up when a photo
snapped by NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory picked up
what appeared to be a flying saucer. It turned out to be a
digital artifact caused by stars in the background that blended
into a single image.

Since the first Viking orbiter circled Mars in 1976, photos from
NASA's space probes have provided grist for the Close Encounters

If you're ready for another trip to the Twilight Zone, you'll
find a good collection of them at

The most famous was a low-resolution Mars image from 1976 that
appeared to show the face of a king or lion carved into a plateau
on the Cydonia Mensae. Speculation about the source of the face
kept the ancient-civilizations crowd exercised for 25 years,
until Mars Global Surveyor took a definitive pass over the site
with a high-resolution camera and proved it was a natural rock

Now that NASA has a couple of rovers on the planet (with more
planned), we're likely to see many more mysteries resolved with
equally prosaic explanations.

But somehow, it's a shame.

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