Calling all would-be planetary explorers! NASA researchers with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are seeking volunteers to help them scope out geographical details on the surface of Mars.
The Red Planet is known to feature thin, blade-like ridges, some of them as tall as a 16 story building and stretching for miles. But a new report published in the journal Icarus argues that these so-called boxwork ridges – raised outlines of rectangles, prntagons, triangles and other polygons – actually have a diverse set of origins, from impact fractures that were later filled in with lava to others that emerged as a result of mineralization processes.
“Polygonal ridges can be formed in several different ways, and some of them are really key to understanding the history of early Mars,” says Laura Kerber, researcher at JPL and lead author of the new study. “Many of these ridges are mineral veins, and mineral veins tell us that water was circulating underground,” says Kerber.
To help Kerber and her colleagues find out more about Mars’ polygonal ridges, NASA has created a citizen-science project using images from the Context Camera (nicknamed CTX) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Called Planet Four: Ridges, the project was launched on January 17 on the Zooniverse platform, which hosts dozens of citizen-science projects along with Planet Four, such as pin-pointing isolated “hot stars” in other galaxies using images from the Hubble Telescope and helping computers to identify humpback whales by the patterns on their tails.
“The major challenge of 21st century research is dealing with the flood of information we can now collect about the world around us,” reads the Zooniverse statement on what the call people-powered research. “Computers can help, but in many fields the human ability for pattern recognition—and our ability to be surprised—makes us superior.”
All of the projects on Zooniverse are quick start and, from our experience, highly addictive. To boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before, as they say, and with JPL’s Planer Four you’re able to do just that, scanning images of Mars’ surface never before viewed by human eyes (imagine that! I just spotted an amazing heart-shaped raised platform – on Mars!)
Launched in 2005, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter multipurpose spacecraft has been in orbit around Mars, collecting data and conducting research since 2006. Along with the CTX and two other cameras, the orbiter operates spectrometer and radar equipment, all to further map out and analyze Mars and to provide updates on its meteorological activity.
On the ground, NASA’s Curiosity rover is in communication with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and continues to roll across the Red Planet’s surface. Recently, the rover has been investigating slabs of what look like dried mud banks within the Gale crater. Scientists are estimating that the cracks in the slabs are likely evidence of a wetter, muddier era in Mars’ history.
“The ancient lakes varied in depth and extent over time, and sometimes disappeared,” says Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We’re seeing more evidence of dry intervals between what had been mostly a record of long-lived lakes.”