Mars clouds take center stage in new NASA project looking for volunteers

mars bluff and sky
Clouds spotted by NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars on March 19, 2021, the 3,063rd Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Fogs, plumes and other types of Red-Planet clouds are getting the crowdsourcing treatment.

You can help NASA scientists do cloudspotting on Mars for free using the Zooniverse platform. Sign up for the project here at Zooniverse. The project, dubbed Cloudspotting on Mars, will invite people to look through 16 years of photos collected by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has operated at the Red Planet since 2006.

"The information may help researchers figure out why the planet's atmosphere is just 1% as dense as Earth's, even though ample evidence suggests the planet used to have a much thicker atmosphere," officials at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California wrote in a statement released Tuesday (June 28).

Related: 12 amazing photos from the Perseverance rover's 1st year on Mars

In the MRO infrared images, which were taken by the Mars Climate Sounder instrument, clouds appear as arches. But until now, scientists have had to pore through the images themselves looking for these features.

"The team needs help sifting through that data on Zooniverse, marking the arches so that the scientists can more efficiently study where in the atmosphere they occur," JPL officials wrote.

A cloud forms an arch in an infrared photo of Mars taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

While Earth and Mars share some cloud similarities (the two worlds have water-ice rich clouds), the Red Planet also has clouds made up of carbon dioxide or dry ice. Examining clouds of all sorts will help scientists sort out the structure of the middle atmosphere of Mars, which is roughly 30 to 50 miles (50 to 80 km) above the planet.

"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,” Marek Slipski, a JPL postdoctoral researcher, said in the statement.

The project could also feed into long-term climatic studies to better learn about why Mars lost its atmosphere, which might be due to atmospheric erosion over the eons.

"One theory suggests different mechanisms could be lofting water high into the atmosphere, where solar radiation breaks those water molecules down into hydrogen and oxygen," JPL officials wrote. 

The resulting hydrogen is so light that solar radiation could easily push it into space. In addition to the MRO work, another NASA mission called MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) is analyzing the phenomenon as well.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: