Fogs, plumes and other cloud types from the Red Planet are getting the crowdsourced treatment.
You can help NASA scientists do cloudspotting on Mars for free using the Zooniverse platform. Sign up for the project here on Zooniverse (opens in a new tab). The project, dubbed Cloudspotting on Mars, will invite people to browse 16 years of photos collected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has operated on the Red Planet since 2006.
“This information may help researchers understand why the planet’s atmosphere is only 1% as dense as Earth’s, even though there is ample evidence to suggest the planet had a much thicker atmosphere,” wrote officials from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. A declaration (opens in a new tab) posted Tuesday, June 28.
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In the MRO infrared images, which were taken by the Mars Climate Sounder instrument, the clouds appear as arcs. But until now, scientists themselves had to scour the images for these features.
“The team needs help sifting through this data on Zooniverse, marking the arches so scientists can more effectively study where they occur in the atmosphere,” the JPL officials wrote.
While Earth and Mars share some similarities when it comes to clouds (both worlds have clouds rich in water ice), the Red Planet also has clouds made up of carbon dioxide or dry ice. Examining clouds of all kinds will help scientists unravel the structure of Mars’ middle atmosphere, which sits about 30 to 50 miles (50 to 80 km) above the planet.
“We want to know what triggers cloud formation – especially water ice clouds, which could tell us how high water vapor enters the atmosphere – and during which seasons,” Marek Slipski, postdoctoral researcher at JPL, said in the statement.
The project could also fuel long-term climate studies to better understand why Mars lost its atmosphere, which could be due to atmospheric erosion over eons.
“One theory suggests that different mechanisms could be the lifting of water 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 MRO’s work, another NASA mission called MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) is also analyzing the phenomenon.