A Closer Look at a Distant Place
Twin Peaks-Mars

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 more mesa-like?


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 angles.

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 discussions above.


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 entirely.

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 bilateral symmetry.

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.