To try to solve a crucial mystery about the atmosphere of Mars, NASA scientists are enlisting the help of ordinary people – like you. They organized a project called “Cloudspotting on Mars”, which invites the public to identify Martian clouds using the citizen science platform. zooniverse.
The information could help researchers figure out why the planet’s atmosphere is only 1% denser than Earth’s, although ample evidence suggests it used to be much thicker.
One of the factors that suggest the alteration of Mars’ atmosphere over the years of the planet’s evolution is that, currently, the air pressure is so low that liquid water simply evaporates from the surface. However, billions of years ago, the landscape was made up of lakes and rivers.
But how did Mars lose its atmosphere over time? One theory suggests that different mechanisms may be driving water into the atmosphere, where solar radiation splits the molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Hydrogen is light enough to leak into space.
Like Earth, Mars has clouds made of water ice. But unlike here, there are clouds made of carbon dioxide (dry ice), which form when it gets cold enough for the Martian atmosphere to freeze.
By figuring out where and how these clouds appear, scientists hope to better understand the structure of Mars’ average atmosphere, which is around 50 to 80 kilometers in altitude. “We want to learn what triggers cloud formation — especially clouds of water ice, which could teach us how high water vapor gets in the atmosphere — and during seasons,” said Marek Slipski, a postdoctoral researcher at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
It was with this in mind that “Cloudspotting on Mars” was developed. The project revolves around a 16-year record of data from the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been studying the Red Planet since 2006.
The spacecraft’s Mars Climate Sounder instrument studies the atmosphere in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye. In measurements taken by the instrument as the MRO orbits Mars, the clouds appear as arcs.
The team needs help sifting through this data, marking the arcs so scientists can more efficiently study where they occur in the atmosphere. “We now have over 16 years of data to go through, which is very valuable — it allows us to see how temperatures and clouds change in different seasons and from year to year,” said Armin Kleinboehl, MARS Climate Sounder Investigator at JPL. “But it’s a lot of data for a small team to look at.”
While scientists have experimented with algorithms to identify the arcs in the Mars Climate Sounder data, it is much easier for humans to see them with their eyes. Kleinboehl said the project could also help train better algorithms that could do this job in the future.
In addition, the project includes occasional webinars where participants can hear from scientists about how the data will be used.
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