At the end in 2020, planetary scientist Marek Slipski found himself glued to his computer, spending countless hours – more than he’d like to admit, he says – sifting through image after image of the Martian atmosphere: zooming in, adjusting contrast, increasing brightness and playing with color . Slipski, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was looking for clouds. Although he had written an algorithm for the task, it produced mixed results, so he had resorted to looking at the data instead.
But this quickly became overwhelming. Even in the small portion of data Slipski studied, there were so many different cloud populations, each varying in height and brightness. “After doing this for a week, I thought, ‘Okay, this is going to take a little more time,'” he recalls. “And it would be nice to have some help.”
Serendipitously, NASA had just issued a call for its Citizen Science Seed Funding Program, which gives space fans an 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 mostly tried to do alone: identify mesospheric clouds. These float at altitudes between 50 and 80 kilometers from the surface and can be seen in data from the Mars Climate Sounder, an instrument orbiting the planet to measure its atmospheric temperature, ice and dust content. “We were actually chosen as the only planetary proposal,” says Kleinböhl. “I guess the stars aligned—or the planets did!”
After weeks of beta testing, at the end of June Skyspotting on Mars project launched on Zooniverse, a platform that hosts hundreds of citizen projects. So far, about 2,600 volunteers have joined the effort, introducing themselves on the forums (“I’m ready to chase the clouds,” wrote a mechanic from France) and digging into the climate sounder’s maps of the atmosphere at different heights, places and times. of 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 scientists who make up the Cloudspotting team hope this work will shed light on the Red Planet’s global weather patterns and why its atmosphere is so thin compared to our own, and even help them understand how liquid water that once present on the surface of Mars, escaped into space. “The climatology that we get through the citizen science project will be much more comprehensive than what has been in the literature so far,” says Kleinböhl, the sounder’s deputy principal investigator.
He is particularly interested in the processes that drive the formation of Martian clouds, which are composed of either carbon dioxide (dry ice) or water ice. “CO2 clouds will tell us something 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 water ice clouds. can tell us something about the presence of water vapor and the processes that may be responsible for transporting water vapor to these high altitudes.”