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Why NASA wants public help in spotting Martian clouds

NASA's citizen science platform project, "Cloudspotting on Mars," invites the public to identify clouds on the red planet.

By: Tech Desk | Thalassery |
June 29, 2022 1:02:16 pm
Image of clouds on mars captured by the Curiosity rover.NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured these clouds just after sunset on March 19, 2021. The image is made up of 21 individual images stitched together and colour corrected so that the scene appears as it would to the human eye. The clouds are drifting over “Mont Mercou,” a cliff face that the rover studied. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Scientists at NASA are hoping to solve a fundamental mystery about Mars’ atmosphere and you can help them do it. The space agency has organised a project that uses its citizen science platform Zooniverse. The project called “Cloudspotting on Mars” invites the public to identify clouds on the red planet.

This information could help researchers understand why its atmosphere is just 1 per cent as dense as Earth’s even though evidence suggests that the planet used to have a much thicker atmosphere.

“We want to learn what triggers the formation of clouds – especially water ice clouds, which could teach us how high water vapour gets in the atmosphere – and during which seasons,” said Marek Slipski, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a press statement.

That is where Cloudspotting on Mars comes in. NASA has 16 years’ worth of Data from its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been studying Earth’s neighbour since 2006. The orbiter’s Mars Climate Sounder instrument studies the atmosphere in infrared light. In the measurements taken by this instrument, clouds appear as arches. The team is looking for the public’s help marking the arches so that they can more efficiently study where clouds occur in the atmosphere.

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It is much easier for humans to spot them by eye, according to the space agency. Also, the project could also help the scientists train better algorithms that could potentially do this work in the future. The project also includes occasional webinars for participants where scientists tell them how the data will be used.

Billions of years ago, Mars was probably covered by lakes and rivers, suggesting that the atmosphere was thicker at the time. There are many theories about how it lost its atmosphere over time. One suggests that different mechanisms could be lofting water high into the atmosphere where solar radiation breaks it into its two component elements, oxygen and hydrogen.

Since hydrogen is light, it would just drift off into space. Mars has clouds of ice just like Earth, but unlike Earth, it also has clouds made of carbon dioxide, essentially, dry ice. Scientists want to understand the structure of Mars’ middle atmosphere (50 to 80 kilometres above the surface) by understanding where and how these clouds appear.

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First published on: 29-06-2022 at 01:02:16 pm

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