Clouds drifting over “Mont Mercou,” a cliff face on Mars studied by the NASA Curiosity Mars Rover. This is a combination of several images, color-corrected, from just after sunset on 2021 March 19.
(Image Sources: NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology)
By Glenn A. Walsh
Reporting for SpaceWatchtower
Two Citizen Science projects, recently announced by NASA, could help scientists find clouds on Mars and find planets orbiting other stars. And, prizes are even being offered for successful submissions in the Exo-planet search project!
Cloudspotting on Mars
Using the Citizen Science Platform Zooniverse, the new Citizen Science project Cloudspotting on Mars could help scientists understand a fundamental mystery about Mars’ atmosphere: according to a NASA news release, “why the planet’s (Mars) atmosphere is just 1% as dense as Earth’s even though ample evidence suggests the planet (Mars) used to have a much thicker atmosphere...”
“The air pressure is so low that liquid water simply vaporizes from the planet’s surface into the atmosphere. But billions of years ago, lakes and rivers covered Mars, suggesting the atmosphere must have been thicker then.”
NASA asks members of the general public to sort through data collected by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to identify Martian clouds. Like Earth, Mars has clouds made of water-ice (H2O).
But, due to the much colder environment, Mars also has clouds composed of carbon dioxide (CO2 – similar to “dry ice”). By learning more about how all of these clouds form, scientists hope to better understand the structure of the Martian atmosphere.
“We want to learn what triggers the formation of clouds – especially water ice clouds, which could teach us how high water vapor gets in the atmosphere – and during which seasons,” said Marek Slipski, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
Using 16 years of data, compiled by the Climate Sounder instrument (which studies the atmosphere in infrared light) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, Citizen Scientists are best equipped to identify the significant cloud “arches” in the data. While scientists have tried using computer algorithms to identify these cloud arches, they have found that it is much easier, and more reliable, for humans to spot the Martian cloud arches data by eye.
Go to the following Internet link to find out how you can participate in the Cloudspotting on Mars project:
Ultralight Starshade Structural Design Challenge
This is a different type of Citizen Science project. And, the top five submissions will share a prize purse of $7,000!
With the great success of the Sun-shield on the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA is now looking for ways to extend such protection to Earth-bound telescopes. In this case, the Earth-bound telescopes would be shaded from light coming from distant stars, in the hope that the much dimmer light from planets circling those stars could be found.
The Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exo-planets (HOEE) project would reinvigorate ground-based telescopes, which may have been considered inferior to the new space telescopes that have been launched in recent decades. An Ultralight Starshade, launched into Earth orbit, would be a key component to making such Hybrid Observatory system a reality.
According to a NASA news release: “The Ultralight Starshade Structural Design Challenge asks participants to develop a lightweight starshade structure that could be used as part of the HOEE concept. The ideal design would allow for compact packaging and successful deployment once in its Earth orbit. It must also have the lowest possible mass so that chemical thrusters can keep it aligned during observations and propulsion systems can change its orbit to observe different targets – all while using as little fuel as possible.”
“The hybrid observatory might help us answer some of the most pressing questions about extraterrestrial life,” said Dr. John Mather, senior astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. “Observing many systems would help answer the question of why configurations like our own are rare and why none is quite like home. It is truly exciting that the public can be part of this revolutionary effort. I can’t wait to see what ideas they bring to the table.”
As previously mentioned, the Ultralight Starshade Structural Design Challenge has a combined prize purse of $7,000. The individual prizes are:
First Place - $3,000
Second Place - $2,000
Third Place - $1,000
Fourth Place - $750
Fifth Place - $250
The DEADLINE to submit an entry in the Ultralight Starshade Structural Design Challenge is Monday Evening, 2022 August 22 at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Daylight Saving Time (EDT) / Tuesday Morning, 2022 August 23 at 3:59 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).
Challenge finalists will be announced on 2022 August 29. The 5 winners will be announced on 2022 September 5.
Go to the following Internet link to find out how you can submit an entry in the Ultralight Starshade Structural Design Challenge:
Internet Links to Additional Information ---
NASA News Release - "Help NASA Scientists Find Clouds on Mars"
NASA News Release - "NASA Seeks Public's Designs to Throw Shade in Space"
Mars: Link >>> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter -
Link 1 >>> https://mars.nasa.gov/mro/
Exo-Planet: Link >>> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exoplanet
Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exo-planets (HOEE):
Wednesday, 2022 July 27.
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Formerly Astronomical Observatory Coordinator & Planetarium Lecturer, original Buhl Planetarium & Institute of Popular Science (a.k.a. Buhl Science Center), Pittsburgh's science & technology museum from 1939 to 1991.
Formerly Trustee, Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, Pittsburgh suburb of Carnegie, Pennsylvania.
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