Ghosts of Mars

Mars: the Red Planet. Mars: the God of War. Mars: the victim of nuclear winter?

From the earliest days of astronomy, we associated the red planet with combat. Ancient Sumerians associated Mars with Nergal, god of plagues and war, while Mesopotamians held it to be "star of judgement of the fate of the dead." Our fascination only grew as 19th century astronomers thought they saw canals on the planet’s surface, later revealed to be an optical illusion.

Famed astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote, “Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.” Even in the modern era, Mars was the most-cited origin for flying saucers and spacemen visiting Earth. These ideas were bolstered by photography from craft such as NASA’s Viking orbiters, which captured aspects of the landscape incongruent with natural formations. Everyone is familiar with the controversial “face on Mars,” a geographical formation that looked strikingly like a human expression staring up from the dusty soil of the Cydonia region. While subsequent photography revealed this to be a function of pareidolia—an optical illusion, similar to seeing shapes in clouds—some hang on to the possibility that the the Cydonia face is unnatural.

Proponents of this theory argue the face has been eroded by time, and point to other anomalies on the surface. Image processing at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center revealed “a pyramid like object” in close proximity to the face on three frames. Moreover, in 2004 Mars Odyssey imaged the Cydonia site and revealed that the “face” does indeed portray two indentations set equidistant from a longer, solid trench—in other words, two eyes and a mouth. If Martian civilization is over three million years old, as prominent American astronomer Tom Van Flandern suggests, this is more than ample time for structures to fall into disrepair so that only their most prominent features are visible. By comparison, the oldest, most controversial dating of the Egyptian Sphinx, proposed by geologist and Boston University professor of natural science Dr. Robert Schoch, is around 7,000 years ago. We should more appropriately ask why the Cydonian structure isn’t more degraded.

Equally intriguing are the straight-lined features seen throughout NASA photography. Alternative author Joseph P. Farrell argues that these rectilinear shapes are incongruent with meteoric impacts, the official explanation NASA offers for anomalies on Mars. Officially, subsequent visits from NASA have failed to turn up any evidence of a civilization on Mars, though tantalizing clues suggest the planet may have once supported life. If this is indeed the case, where did it go?

The best evidence for a Martian civilization is not mythic, but scientific. A controversial idea suggests there may have been conflict between Martians and another civilization—a literal war in heaven. The most prominent advocate for this theory is Dr. John E. Brandenburg, veteran plasma physicist and Senior Propulsion Scientist for Orbital Technologies Corporation in Madison, Wisconsin. Brandenburg’s work has revealed significant concentrations of Xenon 129 isotopes in the Martian atmosphere—a marker only observed in the presence of large nuclear fission events. Perhaps the Cydonian face wasn’t eroded. Perhaps it was destroyed.

“The pattern of xenon abundance in the Martian atmosphere is different from any other planet or meteorite,” Brandenburg writes. “Xenon, a heavy element, has many stable isotopes, and the pattern of their abundance is a fingerprint for the processes that have affected the bodies where it occurs. The xenon 129 appears to come from a large violent reaction like a nuclear bomb of tremendous size… The xenon isotope mass spectrum of the Mars atmosphere matches that from open air nuclear testing on Earth and is characteristic of fast neutron fission rather than that produced by a moderated nuclear reactor.”

While Brandenburg admits that Xenon 129 appears elsewhere by the normal fission decay of uranium, the Mars levels are significantly higher and “differ starkly from the isotopic mass spectrum of xenon elsewhere in the solar system.” It is possible some other, natural mechanism produced concentrations this high, but science is at a loss for any satisfactory alternative. The only place we have observed such a spike is in the presence of atomic weapons testing on Earth.

Brandenburg suggests a civilization did exist on Mars, but was wiped out by nuclear bombs in the distant past. Moreover, it may solve one of astronomy’s enduring mysteries: that of the Fermi Paradox. Posited by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, the concept suggests Earth is typical of life-bearing planets which, statistically speaking, should be abundant… yet we are greeted with deafening radio silence. No reliable evidence suggests any other civilization has been bombarding the cosmos with signals the way human beings have. In Brandenburg’s model, the reason for this silence is that intelligent civilizations do exist, but these species inevitably eliminate life on more primitive worlds, and perhaps themselves The nuclear annihilation of Mars is Exhibit A.

But who carried out this attack? Maybe it was us. The sudden disappearance of ancient civilizations in the Indus Valley have long confounded archaeologists. The Harappans, who thrived circa 3300-1700 BCE, appear to have suddenly vanished. According to A. Gorbovsky’s book Riddles of Ancient History, one of the skeletons recovered from the ancient city of Mohenjo Daro was contaminated with radioactivity “approximately 50 times greater than it should have been due to natural radiation.” Bricks in the area appear vitrified, fused by heat in excess of 1500 degrees Celsius. This revelation prompted English Indian analyst David Davenport to conclude the civilization fell victim to an ancient nuclear attack.

Advocates support their speculation with the Hindu Vedas, Indian religious texts dating to around 1500 BCE, in particular the seventh book of the Mahabharata. In this text, the warrior Drona leads his people into war amid birds falling from the sky, animals set aflame, and armor melting—all from weaponry imbued with the power of the cosmos, brighter than a thousand suns.

One passage reads, “We beheld in the sky what appeared to us to be a mass of scarlet cloud resembling the fierce flames of a blazing fire. From that mass many blazing missiles flashed, and tremendous roars, like the noise of a thousand drums beaten at once. And from it fell many weapons winged with gold and thousands of thunderbolts, with loud explosions, and many hundreds of fiery wheels.”

If you can reconcile the idea of ancient nuclear bombs, how about ancient spacecraft? The Rig Veda, cited by some as humanity’s oldest surviving document, mentions vimanas, mythical vehicles capable of flight. These flying palaces or chariots were designed to be amphibious, airborne, or—surprisingly—orbital.

One interpretation reads vimanas as capable of "jumping into space speedily with a craft using fire and water... containing twelve pillars, one wheel, three machines, 300 pivots, and 60 instruments.” An excerpt from another sacred Hindu source describes a vimana gifted by the deity Shiva to a king which sounds surprisingly like a spacecraft, taking him into space. “The arrows released by Lord Shiva appeared like fiery beams, emanating from the sun and covered the three residential Vimanas which could no longer be seen,” wrote professor M. Shivanandam. In other parts of the Mahabharata, vimanas are described flying erratically through the air—much like modern UFOs—firing advanced weaponry.

Where this technology went is anyone’s guess. If the poor souls of Mohenjo Daro are any indication, perhaps we lost the knowledge of how to craft spaceships and nuclear weapons, along with countless lives. Only after millennia of diligent effort have we begun to relearn the secrets of fission and orbital flight. As alternative historian Graham Hancock fondly says, “I believe we are a species with amnesia. I think we have forgotten our roots and our origins.”

Perhaps Fermi’s Paradox isn’t so mysterious after all. We might just be bad neighbors with bad memories.


This piece was originally written as a narrated podcast submission.



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Brandenburg, J.E. (September 13-16, 2016). Evidence of a Massive Thermonuclear Explosion On Mars in the Past: The Cydonian Hypothesis and Fermi’s Paradox. Long Beach, CA: AIAA SPACE Forum.

Farrell, J.P. (2007). The Cosmic War: Interplanetary Warfare, Modern Physics, and Ancient Texts: A Study in Non-Catastrophist Interpretations of Ancient Legends. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press.

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Shivanandam, M. (June 5, 2015). Mercury Propulsion System in Vedic Vimanas and Modern Spacecrafts. International Journal of Research and Analytical Reviews 2(2), pp. 136-144.

Thompson, H.O. (1970). Mekal, the God of Beth-Shan. Leiden, NL: E.J. Brill.

Photo by Nicole Eason


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