NASA calls on public to help it study the clouds of Mars

NASA has 16 years' worth of data on Mars's atmosphere, but clouds can best be seen with the naked eye. So they need your help to find them in order to understand the atmosphere better.

 Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun (illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun (illustrative).
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

The clouds of Mars are one of the mysteries of the Red Planet's atmosphere, and now a new NASA initiative is being launched to solve it – and you can help.

The project, called Cloudspotting on Mars, is a bid to incorporate the general public in order to identify Martian clouds using the citizen science Zooniverse platform.

This research has the potential to answer some significant questions about the Red Planet.

Why do we care?

Mars is, in many ways, similar to Earth. They both have atmospheres and have clouds made from water ice.

The issue, though, is that much about Mars's atmosphere is very confusing.

 NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured these clouds just after sunset on March 19, 2021, the 3,063rd Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission. The image is made up of 21 individual images stitched together and color corrected so that the scene appears as it would to the human eye. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS) NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured these clouds just after sunset on March 19, 2021, the 3,063rd Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission. The image is made up of 21 individual images stitched together and color corrected so that the scene appears as it would to the human eye. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The Red Planet has an atmosphere that is just 1% of Earth's density. This in turn means it has an extremely low air pressure, to the point where any liquid water on the surface will instantly evaporate.

Mystery of Mars's atmosphere

Once upon a time, billions of years ago, Mars's atmosphere was much thicker. There is a slew of evidence supporting this, such as the presence of lakes and rivers that once covered most of the surface.

But now, it's all gone. 

Exactly how this happened is a mystery. There are theories, though. A prominent one suggests that something brings the water higher into the atmosphere and the Sun's radiation breaks water into its components: Two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

But hydrogen is very light – in fact, it's the lightest element. So light, in fact, that it could easily drift off into space.

There is still so much we don't know about Mars's atmosphere in general.

But there is a way we can learn more. And that is through clouds.

Mars's clouds come in a couple of varieties. The first is water ice clouds, like the ones on Earth. But other clouds are made from carbon dioxide and seem to be similar to dry ice. 

These clouds only form when the atmosphere itself freezes them, and that can only be done when it's already cold enough.

Scientists are unsure exactly where and how they appear, but if they can figure out, it could better aid in our understanding of the Martian atmosphere.

And that's where you come in.

What can I do?

Since 2016, NASA has been operating an orbital probe known as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Using its Mars Climate Sounder instruments, MRO is able to study the Martian atmosphere through infrared light, taking measurements and - more importantly - finding clouds, which seem to show up as arches in this data.

Overall, there is over 16 years' worth of data gathered from the MRO about the Martian atmosphere, but sifting through it is hard.

Currently, NASA lacks a scientific algorithm to properly scan through all the data to identify the arches for clouds. Rather, it seems the most reliable way of spotting clouds is with one's own eyes

But it's a lot of data, and NASA can't go through it all alone. They need your help.

By going on Zooniverse, you and other citizen scientists can get access to the Cloudspotting data, which will help provide instructions so you can best use it and identify clouds.

It can also help with training better algorithms later down the line, once we get more data.

Notably, this is the first planetary science project funded by NASA's Citizen Science Seed Funding program, but it won't be the last.

With Cloudspotting on Mars, ordinary citizen scientists can help make a breakthrough in our understanding of the Martian atmosphere.

To join the Cloudspotting on Mars project, visit: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/marek-slipski/cloudspotting-on-mars/classify