The landscape of Mars is rocky and barren, but the planet’s skies sometimes hold clues to its past in the form of clouds. NASA’s new Cloudspotting on Mars project is a science initiative that lets the public be a part of some new research as the agency studies what happened to Mars’ atmosphere, now much thinner than it once was.
Cloudspotting on Mars enlists citizen scientists with the goal of allowing everyday citizens to help NASA understand the history of Mars’ atmosphere. Geologic evidence on Mars indicates that the now barren planet was once home to coursing rivers and expansive lakes, which leads scientists to believe that the planet’s atmosphere was much thicker long ago. Today, NASA estimates that the Martian atmosphere is only 1% as dense as Earth’s, but scientists aren’t sure how it ended up that way. With Cloudspotting on Mars, the public has access to over 16 years of atmospheric data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that was launched in 2005, and NASA hopes that the project will educate the public on Martian meteorology while potentially allowing scientists outside NASA to piece together how Mars’ atmosphere has evolved.
“We now have over 16 years of data for us to search through, which is very valuable – it lets us see how temperatures and clouds change over different seasons and from year to year,” said Armin Kleinboehl of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a NASA press release. Kleinboehl is a principal investigator of Mars Climate Sounder aboard the Marc Reconnaissance Orbiter. “But it’s a lot of data for a small team to look through.”
I played around with Cloudspotting on Mars and found it deceptively simple (and pretty fun) to go cloud hunting. I was presented with different plots of infrared data of the Martian atmosphere collected by the Mars Climate Sounder—the horizontal axis of each of these plots represents 0 to 4 hours from left to right, while the vertical axis represents altitude of 0 to 100 kilometers from Mars’ surface. Clouds appear as arches because, as NASA explains in the tutorial, “[a]s the spacecraft moves through its orbit, clouds appear to rise from behind the atmosphere to a higher altitude and then fall again. This leads to an arch-like shape in the data.” The peak of the arch is the actual altitude of the cloud, and I marked these points with a green crosshair.
As the public submits their findings, curious hobbyists can help NASA scientists sift through the 16 years of data to begin to piecing together Mars’ atmospheric history. Aside from that, the Cloudspotting on Mars project is just a really fun way to get the public interested in NASA’s efforts. As the agency gears up for a return to the moon, the Cloudspotting on Mars is an awesome way to jumpstart the public’s fascination and interest in our Solar System.