What is going on
NASA outsources the task of chasing the clouds on Mars to the public. You can join online whenever you want.
Why it matters
The more Mars cloud detections the agency has, the better our chances of solving one of the red planet’s greatest mysteries.
If you’re anything like me and can’t resist smart websites — like this one, which guides you through the evolution of trust — you’ll love NASA’s latest venture.
With a new project called Cloudspotting on Mars, the agency calls on all citizen scientists to fill their spare time by searching Mars’ atmospheric data. Anyone can do it at any time.
You can access the system through the online platform Zooniverse — and as the program’s name suggests, the goal is to spot Mars clouds hidden in datasets produced by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. And while the whole process is quite fun—almost wonderfully trancelike—monitoring these clouds serves a purpose beyond mind-numbing entertainment.
NASA scientists are outsourcing cloud detection because they think we need a lot of information about these wispy puffs to solve a long-standing astronomical riddle: What about Mars’ atmosphere?
Where’s Waldo? But with clouds
Our observations on Earth show that Mars has an atmosphere that is only about 1% as dense as Earth’s. But that’s strange because a plethora of evidence, according to NASA, suggests that the red planet used to have an atmosphere significantly thicker than our own.
So, what happened to Mars’ once-robust outer shell?
Changes can be seen in the Martian dunes from early spring (left) to Martian winter. The last panel (far right) shows more of the exposed dark dunes as the overlying layer of seasonal ice evaporates back into the atmosphere.
Well, if we can decipher the cloud population on Mars, we could pave the way for an answer, the agency says. This theory stems from the fact that these shrouds of Martian gas — sometimes made of carbon dioxide, which might be known as dry ice, and sometimes of ice water — pretty much make up the structure of the planet’s middle atmosphere.
“We want to learn what causes cloud formation — especially water ice clouds, which could teach us how high water vapor gets into the atmosphere — and during what seasons,” Marek Slipski, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in a statement. This knowledge could inform us how Mars’ atmosphere evolved into the thin coating we see today.
There is just one small problem. The idea of manually finding every Mars cloud is somewhat far-fetched.
“We now have over 16 years of data to search through, which is very valuable — it shows us how temperatures and clouds change over different seasons and from year to year,” Armin Kleinboehl, Mars Climate Sounder deputy principal investigator at JPL, said in a statement. “But it’s a lot of data for a small team to review.”
And as Cloudspotting states in its tutorial, “There are so many clouds, a single individual can’t find them all alone. With the help of you and other citizen scientists, we think tens of thousands of these clouds can be identified!”
By identifying these clouds in MCS observations, we can create maps of where they form, determine their composition (water, carbon dioxide, or dust), and see how they change during the day and in different seasons. pic.twitter.com/X0lTg5VBmx
— The Zooniverse (@the_zooniverse) June 28, 2022
Here’s how it all works.
Embed on arcs
First, the dataset clouds you’ll be tracking don’t look like clouds. Honestly, they look like bluish tie-dye stripes you’d see on a DIY camp t-shirt.
But within these stripes lies the treasure of the Martian mystery. Arcs between the azure patterns represent each point of interest because as the NASA orbiter moves around and passes clouds, those clouds “seem to rise from behind the atmosphere to a higher altitude and then fall again,” as the tutorial puts it. , therefore displaying an arch-like form in the data.
The tops of these arcs are the real locations of the clouds that NASA is looking for.
This is what the arcs look like in the Cloudspotting program.
Each time you log in to complete your cloud-chasing tasks for the day, you’ll look at these images, including hours of orbiter observations, and be prompted to mark the tops of any arcs you see. Find. Here’s a screenshot of one of my catches.
I have one!
Screenshot by Monisha Ravisetti/CNET
Depending on the image at hand, it can get a little difficult, especially since you have to look at a few different frames from the same dataset to ensure a cloud candidate doesn’t go unnoticed. Arches themselves can also be difficult to distinguish at times.
But on the plus side, Cloudspotting also includes a forum where you can talk to other cloud spotters about your trials and tribulations.
So, find your cloud spotting friends and have fun hunting.