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NASA can’t solve this Mars mystery, so it wants your help

Published Jul 2nd, 2022 12:33PM EDT
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Mars is full of secrets and mystery. No matter how many exploits NASA manages to pull off on the Red Planet, it seems like new secrets are always just around the next bend. Now, NASA is calling for members of the public to help solve a Mars mystery that has left the space agency’s brightest scratching their heads for decades.

You can help NASA solve this Mars mystery

mars clouds
Mars clouds as captured by Curiosity. Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA recently came to the conclusion that it needs to dig deeper in its search for signs of ancient life on Mars. But what the Red Planet can tell us doesn’t simply stop there. There’s still a lot we don’t understand about Mars. Mysteries that NASA hopes the public can help them solve.

On Tuesday, NASA shared a post asking for members of the public to join its new Cloudspotting on Mars project. The project is the first planetary science project to be funded using NASA’s Citizen Science Seed Funding program. And, with the help of those around the world, NASA hopes to solve a Mars mystery that has long baffled its scientists: what triggers the formation of clouds on Mars?

But how can you help solve this Mars mystery? Well, NASA has brought together over 16 years’ worth of data gathered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It’s made that data readily available to the public on the citizen science platform Zooniverse. Basically, it needs the public to help it sift through data that MRO has captured.

What is NASA looking for?

citizens can find arches in MRO data to help solve Martian mystery
Clouds appear as arches in data captured by NASA’s MRO. Image source: NASA

MRO captures data in infrared, a spectrum of light not visible to the human eye. With the instruments on MRO and other spacecraft, though, we can see through that spectrum. NASA wants the public to look for any signs of clouds in the infrared captures that MRO has gathered of Mars’ atmosphere. Finding these clouds, which look like arches in the MRO data, could help solve this longstanding Mars mystery.

Many believe Mars was once a habitable planet. That the surface of our now dusty neighbor was once covered with lakes and rivers. NASA’s Curiosity rover has even found rocks that seem to corroborate those beliefs. Now, liquid water simply vaporizes on the planet’s surface and into the thin atmosphere. But how and when clouds form has remained a baffling Martian mystery.

NASA says that there are two types of clouds that form on Mars. The first is water ice clouds, like what we see on Earth. The second type is made of carbon dioxide, like dry ice. These form when the atmosphere becomes cold enough for the clouds to freeze. The space agency has messed around with algorithms to spot the clouds. But, it says relying on humans to spot them by eye is much easier.

The hope is that NASA can figure out where clouds form, and when they form. If it can, the space agency hopes to better understand the planet’s middle atmosphere. On top of that, it may unlock vital clues to understanding how Mars’ atmosphere became so thin in the first place. Altogether, this would help NASA solve one of the longest-standing Martian mysteries we’ve encountered so far.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.