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  • The Planet Four online citizen science project is designed to assist planetary scientists to identify and measure features on the surface of Mars that don’t exist on Earth. Help is needed to identify images from the Mars southern polar region. This is an area of Mars that little is known about, and most images have never been seen by human eyes before!

    Rights: NASA

    NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

    This is an artist’s illustration of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passing above a portion of Mars called Nilosyrtis Mensae.

    Released into the public domain by NASA.


    Reach: Worldwide

    Nature of science focus: Online citizen science (OCS) projects can be used to develop any of the Nature of Science (NoS) substrands. Identify aspects of NoS that your students need to get better at or understand more fully and then frame your unit to be very clear about these things when you do them.

    Science capability focus: Gather and interpret data, Interpret representations, Engage with science.

    Science focus: Astronomical systems

    With your help, we are learning about seasons on Mars, from activity below its dry ice polar caps to winds in the atmosphere of the Red Planet.

    Planet Four researcher

    Some suggested science concepts:

    • Geography events are ongoing and reshape planets over time.
    • Identifying different environmental features.
    • Particular characteristics of an environment may be similar to and/or different from another.
    • The wonder of new discoveries in science.
    • Science understanding can change with new knowledge.
    • Limitations of artificial intelligence and value of human observations.

    Many concepts could be learned – focusing on a few can often be more powerful. Develop your learning outcomes and success criteria from these concepts as well as the Nature of Science strand and the science capabilities.

    Some examples of learning outcomes:

    Students can:

    • develop an understanding of the features of environments – this will help develop a greater understanding of additional concepts such as location, distance and region
    • discuss the importance of observation in science
    • debate the strengths and weaknesses of using citizen scientists to process data
    • understand how scientific investigations use a variety of approaches – for example, classifying and identifying, and pattern seeking.

    Citizen scientists played an integral role in this research because these features are essentially patterns at the surface, so almost anyone with a computer and internet can help identify these patterns using images of Mars

    Aditya Khuller, Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration
    Rights: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona

    Araneiform morphology

    Araneiform terrain on Mars with channels carved by carbon dioxide gas.

    Released into the public domain by NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona.

    About the Planet Four project

    This project uses Zooniverse and offers students a unique opportunity to explore real scientific data while making a contribution to cutting-edge research. This help from citizen scientists is enabling scientists to discover new insights into the processes active in the past and present on the Red Planet. Scientists now believe the polygonal ridge network on Mars may hold fossilised records of ancient groundwater flowing through them.

    It is difficult, if not impossible, for computer algorithms to accurately map individual polar seasonal fans, spot araneiform (spider) erosion and identify polygonal ridges on Mars. Computers just aren’t good enough to do the job, but these features visible from orbit are easily spotted by the human eye. Volunteers from around the world are contributing to the Planet Four project by helping to map the seasonal fans, polygonal ridges and araneiforms from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter imagery.

    Rights: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

    Curiosity tracks

    This image was taken on 11 April 2014, by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It shows NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover and tracks from its driving.

    The rover appears bright blue and is near the largest butte in the lower left quadrant of the image, at about a 2 o’clock position relative to the butte.

    What do you look for?

    The project needs help to find and mark fans and blotches on the Martian surface from images taken by the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Scientists believe that these features indicate wind direction and speed. By tracking these fans and blotches over the course of several Martian years, scientists can see how they form, evolve, disappear and reform. This will help planetary scientists better understand the Mars climate. Researchers also want to know if these features form in the same spot each year and how they change.

    Each marking will be collected together with the markings made by other volunteers on that same image. Taking an average of these markings, the researchers will produce an extremely reliable map of the fan and blotch features on the surface of Mars. This will be the first large-scale measurement of wind on the planet and will help to explain how different regions evolve on Mars. Through the ‘Talk’ tab on the Zooniverse project website, you can ‘talk’ to the scientists. Accessibility to experts has been shown to be a powerful connection and motivator with students and the subject material they are covering.

    From time to time the project runs low on data for analysis. It's still worthwhile visiting the website as it contains excellent images, diagrams and text that add value to learning about this unusual landscape. The education tab has links to NASA's JPL resouces relating to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

    Related content

    Humans have long been fascinated with Mars. Read about the Curiosity rover mission to Mars and its findings.

    Observation is a key skill as explained in the article Observation and science.

    Citizen science projects

    Help NASA – join the AI4Mars citizen science project to help teach Mars rovers how to classify Martian terrain so they can better navigate.

    These two case studies below also feature teachers who used a citizen science project in their astronomy units:

    • Melissa Coton (year 5/6) – measuring light pollution at night as part of a unit on light.
    • Matt Boucher (year 7/8) – hunting for exoplanets within a unit on light.

    Here are some planning tips for when you intend to use a citizen science project with your students. See these helpful webinars: Getting started with citizen science and Online citizen science.

    Activity idea

    Your students may like to try the activity Is anything out there? in which they work out which planets could have life.

    Useful links

    Follow Planet Four on X (previously Twitter).

    The 2022 article Citizen scientists help map ridge networks on Mars by Arizona State University provides an update on some of the findings from this project. It is based on the project’s first research paper – access the full paper.

    Watch the How Scientists Study Wind on Mars video on the NASA Mars Exploration website. See how 80,000 citizen scientists helped sort through the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s images leading to hundreds of thousands of wind 'fans' being identified on the surface of Mars.

    Find out more about the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) that has photographed huge swathes of the Mars’ surface in unprecedented detail.

    Learn more about NASA’s Mars rover missions:

    NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a great collection of education resources relating to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

    See our large collection of citizen science resources curated in this Pinterest board.

      Published 27 June 2022 Referencing Hub articles
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