NASA is crowdsourcing cloud research – on Mars

At the end In 2020, planetary scientist Marek Slipski was stuck at his computer and spent countless hours — more than he cares to admit, he says — looking at the Martian atmosphere frame by frame: zooming in, adjusting contrast, increasing brightness, and using color playing around. Slipski, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was looking for clouds. Although he had written an algorithm for the task, it gave mixed results, so he had turned to observing the data instead.

But that quickly became overwhelming. Even in the small block of data that Slipski examined, there were so many different cloud populations, each varying in height and brightness. “After doing this for a week, I was like, ‘Okay, this is going to take a little longer,'” he recalls. “And it would be nice to have some help.”

Luckily, NASA had just issued a call for their Citizen Science Seed Funding Program, which gives space fans the opportunity to get involved in cutting-edge research. Slipski and Armin Kleinböhl, an atmospheric physicist at JPL, immediately began drafting a proposal. Perhaps the crowd could tackle what Slipski had been trying to do mostly on his own: identify mesospheric clouds. These hover at altitudes between 50 and 80 kilometers above the surface and can be seen in data from the Mars Climate Sounder, an instrument that orbits the planet to measure its atmospheric temperature, ice and dust content. “We were actually selected as the only planetary proposal,” says Kleinböhl. “I guess the stars have aligned – or the planets!”

After weeks of beta testing, the Cloudspotting on Mars project launched in late June on Zooniverse, a platform that hosts hundreds of citizen projects. So far, about 2,600 volunteers have joined the effort, featured on the forums (“I’m ready to chase the clouds,” wrote a mechanic from France) and in the climate controller’s maps of the atmosphere at different altitudes, in different places and at dug different times from the day. Participants only need a computer and internet access to contribute, as the data is viewed using a browser-embedded visualization tool that comes with a quick, optional tutorial.

The five researchers on the Cloudspotting team hope this work will shed light on the Red Planet’s global weather patterns, why its atmosphere is so thin compared to ours, and even help them understand how liquid water once existed on the surface of Mars was, escaped into space. “The climatology that we will get from the citizen science project will be much more comprehensive than what has been in the literature so far,” says Kleinböhl, the sonar’s deputy principal investigator.

He is particularly interested in the processes driving the formation of Martian clouds composed of either carbon dioxide (dry ice) or water ice. “The CO2 Clouds tell us about the structure and dynamics of the atmosphere and the conditions that lead to very low temperatures,” he says, since carbon dioxide condenses at a temperature typically colder than the Martian atmosphere, “while the water ice clouds might tell us something.” say about the presence of water vapor and the processes that might be responsible for transporting water vapor to these high altitudes.”

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