Planet Four crowdsources the Martian landscape

Study the way Mars changes with the seasons. Join over 100,000 amateur space explorers in the Planet Four project as they analyze high-resolution images sent back to Earth by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The catalog you help create will help scientists make better weather forecasts on Mars.

Carbon dioxide snow falls falls from the Martian sky every winter, covering the landscape in a pale crust of dry ice. As spring approaches, the ground warms faster than the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide ice touching the ground sublimates into a gas, but is trapped by the ice layer above. As more ice sublimates, the ice layer gets weaker and weaker. Then the bubble bursts. A puff of carbon dioxide shoots through the ice layer, carrying with it dust from the ground below. That dust settles back onto the surrounding ice. If the wind is blowing, then the dust gets carried away from the blow hole. Pictures taken from orbit show dark blotches and fan-like shapes form over the course of the Martian spring. These shapes disappear by summer as the carbon dioxide ice sublimates into the atmosphere and the dust blends into the Martian surface.

Scientists want to study dust fans to learn about the Martian climate and the role of erosion in its geology. The fans indicate the direction and strength of Martian winds across broad areas. Scientists get direct measurements of winds from only two sources: the rovers Opportunity and Curiosity. Understanding how the spring dust fans form lets the scientists develop better models of the Martian climate. 

The challenge is finding the data in all of the images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Normally, planetary scientists would write an artificial intelligence algorithm to search through the image archives. The fuzzy shapes of the dust fans, however, are too indistinct for algorithms to detect. Human vision works fine. That makes Martian dust fans a perfect project for the Zooniverse crowdsourcing service. Planet Four divides high-resolution images into smaller “cutouts”. The analysis tools lets you mark the location and shape of the dust fans as well as highlight other features on the landscape. The project retires a cutout once it receives one hundred reviews. By early 2014, over 100,000 amateur space explorers had created over 4 million reviews.

You can follow the project’s progress on the Planet Four Blog, but the strength of a Zooniverse project comes from its community. Thousands of discussions take place in the Project Four Talk forums. Your fellow space explorers - amateur and professional - will help you get started classifying dust fans and answer your questions about the features you’ll see in the Martian landscape.

Publications, presentations, and other resources:

“Mars' Seasonal Fans Measured by Citizen Scientists” presented by the project’s Deputy Principle Investigator Candice Hansen at the 2013 European Planetary Science Conference. (ADS abstract or PDF)