Citizen Scientists Help Locate “Spiders” On Mars

The spider structure seen on the south pole of Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Computers are great and will probably one day be smarter than us, but no matter their computational power, humans are still much better than them at one crucial task in science: recognizing patterns.

So instead of training machines, researchers sought the help of 10,000 volunteers to look at patterns on Mars. This legion of citizen scientists was able to spot several “spiders”, erosion regions in the Martian south pole formed by the thawing of frozen carbon dioxide, as seen by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Previous studies indicate that the ice sheets thaw from the bottom up, eventually trapping enough CO2 gas that the pressure will crack the ice into peculiar shapes reminiscent of spider legs.  

"The trapped carbon dioxide gas that carves the spiders in the ground also breaks through the thawing ice sheet," said Meg Schwamb of the Gemini Observatory in a statement. "It lifts dust and dirt that local winds then sculpt into hundreds of thousands of dark fans that are observed from orbit."

The project is called "Planet Four: Terrains”, and it uses images from the Context Camera (CTX) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and asks the volunteers to highlight interesting details, which are then followed-up with the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera onboard the probe.

"For the past decade, HiRISE has been monitoring this process on other parts of the south pole," said Schwamb. "The 20 new regions have been added to this seasonal monitoring campaign. Without the efforts of the public, we wouldn't be able to see how these regions evolve over the spring and summer compared with other regions." 

"It's heartwarming to see so many citizens of planet Earth donate their time to help study Mars," added HiRISE Deputy Principal Investigator Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. "Thanks to the discovery power of so many people, we're using HiRISE to take images of places we might not have studied without this assistance."

The team has added more CTX images of the south polar regions for volunteers to look at. The project is part of the citizen science portal Zooniverse, which runs 47 different projects from astronomy and history to medicine and literature. More than 1 million people volunteer on the site and at least 111 scientific publications were possible thanks to the help of citizen scientists.  

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