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Reflection: Exploring Mars with 150,000 Earthlings

by Emily Peavy on March 7th, 2017

‘Imiloa invited Dr. Meg Schwamb, Assistant Scientist at Gemini Observatory, to the planetarium where she discussed citizen science projects that are currently studying unique surface features on the red planet of Mars in Maunakea Skies: Exploring Mars with 150,000 Earthlings.

Like nothing we’ve seen on Earth:
Mars is often referred to as “Earth’s little brother,” as it shares many similarities to planet Earth. Like Earth, Mars orbits within the habitable zone, its axial tilt causes seasons for the northern and southern hemispheres and it’s within the sun’s region where it’s warm enough for liquid water to exist. Despite these similarities, observations from orbiting spacecraft have revealed features around the poles of Mars that are nothing like we’ve observed from Earth.

Dark “fans” have been observed on Mars, particularly near the southern pole of the planet. These dark features are thought to be geysers of carbon dioxide (CO2). During the Martian winter, CO2 ice (also known as dry ice) collects beneath the surface near the poles. When the spring season starts warming the southern hemisphere, the CO2 ice sublimates (transforms directly from a solid form to a gaseous form) and erupts from the surface. When the Martian winds blow this material, planetary scientists are able to probe the atmosphere of the red planet and study wind patterns and other atmospheric phenomena. Additionally, some of this gas remains trapped beneath the surface and forms “spider” channels as it travels beneath the surface of the planet.

Many observations of these features and phenomena come from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which started its orbital mission in 2006. HiRISE is able to detect surface features as small as coffee tables from the orbit of Mars.

Average, everyday people explore surface features on Mars:

Over the past decade scientists around the world have seen the rise of “citizen science” projects. These projects connect people through the Internet, allowing average, everyday people to participate in scientific projects. Planet Four and Planet Four: Terrains allows volunteers to explore and identify features, such as fans and spiders, on the surface of Mars.

Participants map out features and sort through images taken with Reconnaissance’s HiRISE camera, and the lower resolution CTX camera. Computers are not good at identifying these features, but they are easily spotted with the human eye, making these “citizen scientists” all the more valuable.

The above image shows how “citizen scientists” have mapped the observed features on Mars, and how scientists can average this information into usable data.
Credit: Planetfour

Information generated by these projects are implemented by scientists to map the poles of the red planet. This also assists in gaining a better understanding of how seasonal changes affect the surface features and the atmosphere on Mars. In her presentation, Dr. Schwamb showcased some recent discoveries from Planet Four: Terrains, including HiRISE images from some of the 20 new regions of interest suspected of having spider channels, confirmed by HiRISE imaging.

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