You Can Now Help NASA Hunt For Martian Clouds
Some of the images beamed back to Earth by robotic explorers like Perseverance can make Mars look almost familiar, in an arid desert sort of way. The conditions on the surface are completely alien, though. It’s frigid, and the atmosphere is so thin that clouds are rare, but NASA believes understanding more about the red planet’s cloud cover could help us understand how it got that way. Enter, you, citizen scientist. NASA has a new tool where anyone can help advance its research by hunting for signs of Martian clouds in a massive data set. Trust us, it’s more fun than it sounds.
The more we learn about Mars, the clearer it becomes that it went through major changes in the distant past. Today, the world is a craggy wasteland, coated in a layer of ultra-fine dust. A few eons ago, Mars had flowing water and (probably) a thick, Earth-like atmosphere. Now, the atmosphere is only one percent as dense as ours, and most of that is carbon dioxide.
Even with its scant atmosphere, Mars does have light cloud cover around 30-50 miles (50-80 kilometers) above the surface (see above, an image captured by Curiosity in 2021). Scientists believe understanding cloud formation will offer insights into the mechanisms that stripped Mars of its atmosphere, and luckily, we have 16 years of data on it. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been whirling around the planet for almost two decades, and it has an instrument called the Mars Climate Sounder.
According to Armin Kleinboehl of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, there’s just too much data for the small team at JPL to dig through, and that’s where you come in. The Cloudspotting on Mars website will let you scour the data in search of clouds, but you’ll need to run through a tutorial to have any idea what you’re doing.
The Mars Climate Sounder scans nine spectral channels in the visual and infrared spectrum to measure temperature, humidity, and dust content in the Martian atmosphere. The raw data from the instrument is presented as a graph (example above), with altitude on the Y-axis and time on the X-axis. As the probe orbits, clouds peek up above the background signal, peak, and then drop off — so they appear in the data as arches that you can readily identify. The tool runs you through how to look at different frames with varying brightness, as well as inverting the image to spot faint arches. All you have to do is mark the peak, which corresponds to the altitude of the cloud.
It’s surprisingly fun to go hunting for clouds on Mars, and you don’t even need to sign up to start helping out. That said, the site does encourage you to register so you can participate in discussions and be cited in research in case you spot anything important.