When you have some free time and are fascinated by NASA’s extraordinary exploits on Mars, how about getting involved by helping scientists solve one of the red planet’s enduring mysteries?
A new project is inviting interested folks to help NASA scientists figure out why Mars’ atmosphere is only 1% as dense as Earth’s, a question all the more intriguing given evidence suggesting the distant planet once had one had a much denser atmosphere.
“The air pressure is so low that liquid water simply evaporates from the planet’s surface into the atmosphere,” said NASA. “But billions of years ago, lakes and rivers covered Mars, suggesting the atmosphere must have been denser then.”
Marek Slipski, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which oversees missions to Mars, said an important part of the study will be figuring out what triggers the formation of Martian clouds, “particularly water ice clouds, which could teach us how much water vapor.” gets into the atmosphere – and at what times of the year.”
You don’t have to come up with complex scientific theories on the subject to support NASA (although NASA would love to hear from you if you do). Instead, the space agency’s scientists want you to join them Cloud spotting on Mars project and review data to identify Martian clouds.
According to JPL’s Armin Kleinboehl, there’s a lot of data for people to analyze — 16 years to be precise. Kleinboehl said the “very valuable” data collected by the Mars Climate Sounder Instrument (MCS) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter allows scientists “to see how temperatures and clouds change in different seasons and from year to year,” but added, “It’s a lot of data for a small team to sift through.”
So the team calls she for help.
NASA explains that the MCS studies the planet’s atmosphere in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye. In the MCS data, clouds appear as distinct arcs (see below) – with the peak showing the cloud at its highest altitude – and NASA wants you to help spot it.
Participants reviewing the data on the citizen science platform Zooniverse are asked to highlight the arcs so scientists can more efficiently determine where they occur in the atmosphere.
According to Zooniverse, identifying these particular clouds will help scientists create maps of where they form, determine what they’re made of (water, carbon dioxide, or dust), and see how they’re changing throughout the day and over time of the seasons change.
This should lead to a better understanding of how Martian clouds form and how they affect the planet’s climate and atmosphere.
If you’re wondering why NASA experts didn’t just create an algorithm to do the job, well they did. But they found that it’s actually faster for humans to complete the task. Nevertheless, they have not given up on developing a more effective algorithm and hope that data from the current project will help them in this.
For more information on how to participate, see the project’s website. And if Martian clouds don’t do it for you, how about helping out with a similar project involving clouds on Jupiter instead?
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