Mars, “Red Planet” Crowdsourcing Cloud Research by NASA: Marek Slipski spent countless hours poring over Martian atmosphere images at the end of 2020. He was zooming in, adjusting contrast, increasing the brightness, and adjusting the colours. Slipski looked for clouds at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). His algorithm was yielding mixed results, so he eyeballed the data instead.
But this quickly became overwhelming. As Slipski studied a small chunk of data, he found many distinct clouds, each with different brightness and height. “After a week, I realized it would take more time,” he says. “And it’d be quite nice to have some help.”
NASA had just announced its Citizen Science Seed Funding Program. This gives space fans the chance to get involved in cutting-edge research. Slipski and Armin Kleinböhl, a JPL atmospheric physicist, immediately drafted a proposal. Maybe the crowd could do what Slipski had mostly done alone: identify mesospheric clouds. These float at 50 to 80 kilometres from the surface and can be seen in the Mars Climate Sounder data. This instrument is orbiting the planet to measure its atmospheric temperature, ice, and dust content. “We got selected as the only planetary proposal,” Kleinböhl says. “I guess our stars aligned—or the planets did!”
Cloud Research by NASA
Cloud Research by NASA: The Cloudspotting on Mars project started on the Zooniverse in June. Since then, about 2,600 volunteers have joined the effort. The data is seen using a browser-embedded visualization tool with a quick tutorial. It allows participants to map the Martian atmosphere at different heights and times of the day.
The scientists hope to understand more about the formation of clouds composed of carbon dioxide (dry ice) or water ice. CO2 condenses at a temperature typically colder than that of the Martian atmosphere. Water ice clouds may tell us something about the presence of water vapour and the processes that transport it into space.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s infrared sounder maps the heat radiating from the Martian surface. This can map up to 80 kilometres in the air. Mission scientists noticed prominent, archlike features in these heat maps that implied their presence. These arches result from the changing angle between a cloud and the infrared sensors as the spacecraft travels along its orbit. As the sounder approaches a cloud, to the sensors, the cloud appears higher in the sky while closer to the ground. The arch’s peak then represents the cloud’s actual altitude above the Martian soil.
The Cloudspotting project allows users to identify the peaks of any arches they can find in the sounder’s heat maps at different altitudes and times. Each image is shown in four frames (the original and three others with varying contrast and brightness levels). Users can also invert the colour to spot arches that are particularly faint.
Kleinböhl and Slipski initially uploaded about 140 days’ worth of images to the Cloudspotting website. They expected that it’d take a couple of months for people to analyze the data. “But we had an overwhelming response,” Kleinböhl says. “It was really fantastic—much better than we had anticipated.” In just two weeks, citizen scientists examined over 6,000 images, finding, on average, three to four clouds per image.
Cloud Research by NASA: Scientists have been using the Zooniverse to classify space photos, digitize rainfall records, and much more. It’s an advantageous approach for research that involves looking for features that are too complicated or hidden for a computer to identify. “It’s still fairly easy to fool a computer,” says Haverford College astronomer Karen Masters.
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To sustain engagement, Slipski hosted a webinar on July 15, giving volunteers a chance to meet the research team as well as each other. Identifying arches might help future piloted missions navigate the planet’s atmosphere.
The Cloudspotting team doesn’t expect to get through all the data available but hopes to analyze a few representative years. Eventually, we can train the training the algorithm. This would get one of the most comprehensive and long-term datasets scientists can use to learn about the Red Planet’s atmosphere.
“Sixteen years of data—that is not trivial,” says Majd Mayyasi, a planetary scientist at Boston University who is not involved in the project.
Citizen scientists map how water vapour, dust, and carbon dioxide move through the Martian sky. “That’s been a significant part of the evolution of Mars’ atmosphere from a wet and warm planet to the dry and cold one we see today,” Slipski says. With the help of citizen scientists, the Cloudspotting team hopes to release initial results early next year.
They expect the citizen science project to stay active for two years. The Mars Climate Sounder will keep sending back information through the end of 2022 (or longer if NASA decides to extend the mission). Two weeks ago, the Cloudspotting team released a second batch—about 12,000 images for people to continue classifying. “I hope we can accumulate a few more Mars years, hopefully, all the way to the end of the decade.” Kleinböhl says, “to establish a resolved, detailed climatology of the Martian atmosphere.”