NASA asks for help to identify the clouds of Mars

NASA asks for help to identify the clouds of Mars


NASA scientists hope to solve a fundamental mystery on the atmosphere of Mars by inviting the public to identify Martian clouds using the platform Zooniverse.

The information obtained with the initiative Cloudspotting on Mars can help researchers find out why the planet’s atmosphere is only 1% denser than Earth’s, although ample evidence suggests that the planet used to have a much thicker atmosphere.

The air pressure is so low that liquid water simply vaporizes from the planet’s surface into the atmosphere. But billions of years ago, lakes and rivers covered Mars, suggesting the atmosphere must have been thicker then.

How did Mars lose its atmosphere over time? One theory suggests that different mechanisms could be lifting the water into the atmosphere, where solar radiation breaks down those water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen (water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom). Hydrogen is light enough that it can then float off into space.

Similarities and differences with Mars

Just like Earth, Mars has clouds made of water ice. But unlike Earth, it also has clouds made of carbon dioxide, they form when it cools enough for the Martian atmosphere to freeze locally. By understanding where and how these clouds appear, scientists hope to better understand the structure of the middle atmosphere of Mars, which is about 50 to 80 kilometers high.

“We want to know what triggers cloud formation, especially clouds of water ice, which could kill us. height at which water vapor reaches the atmosphere, and during what seasons», said in a statement Marek Slipski, a postdoctoral researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the POT.

that’s where it comes in Cloudspotting on Mars. The project revolves around a 16-year data record of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) agency, which has been studying the red planet since 2006. The instrument Mars Climate Sounder of the spacecraft studies the atmosphere in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye.

Clouds appear as arches

In measurements taken by the instrument as MRO orbits Mars, the clouds appear as arcs. The team needs help sifting through that data in Zooniverse, pinpointing the arcs so scientists can more efficiently study where in the atmosphere they occur.

“We now have over 16 years of data to search, 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, deputy principal investigator for Mars Climate Sounder at JPL. “But it is a lot of data for a small team to analyze”.

Although scientists have experimented with algorithms to identify arcs in data from Mars Climate Sounder, it is much easier for humans to spot them with the naked eye. But Kleinboehl said the project Cloudspotting can also help train better algorithms that could do this job in the future. Additionally, the project includes occasional webinars where participants can hear from scientists about how the data will be used.

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