Nebulae, feathers, and other types of Red Planet clouds get the crowdsourced treatment.
With the Zooniverse platform, you can help NASA scientists cloudspot Mars for free. Sign up for the project at Zooniverse here (opens in new tab). The project, dubbed Cloudspotting on Mars, invites people to review 16 years of photos collected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been operating on the red planet since 2006.
“The information could help researchers determine why the planet’s atmosphere is only 1% as dense as Earth’s, despite ample evidence suggesting the planet once had a much thicker atmosphere,” wrote officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ( JPL) issued a statement to NASA in California (opens in new tab) released on Tuesday (June 28).
Related: 12 amazing photos from the Perseverance rover’s first year on Mars
Clouds appear as arcs in the MRO infrared images taken by the Mars Climate Sounder instrument. But until now, scientists have had to comb through the images themselves to look for these features.
“The team needs help reviewing this data on Zooniverse and tagging the arcs so scientists can more efficiently study where in the atmosphere they occur,” JPL officials wrote.
While Earth and Mars share some cloud similarities (the two worlds have water ice-rich clouds), the Red Planet also has clouds composed of carbon dioxide or dry ice. Studying clouds of all types will help scientists determine the structure of Mars’ middle atmosphere, located about 50 to 80 km above the planet.
“We want to find out what triggers the formation of clouds — specifically water ice clouds, which could show us how much water vapor is entering the atmosphere — and at what times of the year,” Marek Slipski, a postdoctoral researcher at JPL, said in the statement.
The project could also feed into long-term climate studies to better understand why Mars lost its atmosphere, possibly due to atmospheric erosion over the eons.
“One theory suggests that various mechanisms could push water high into the atmosphere, where solar radiation breaks down these water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen,” JPL officials wrote.
The resulting hydrogen is so light that solar radiation could easily push it into space. In addition to the MRO work, another NASA mission called MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) is also analyzing the phenomenon.
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