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Citizen Scientists Crack The Martian Code, Image By Image

A new project lets anyone with an interest in space comb through photos taken of the surface of the red planet to help NASA figure out the geology and weather patterns without sending more really expensive rovers.

Citizen science holds potential not only to do the work of professional scientists more efficiently—but also to do science that wouldn’t normally be done. From cancer research to ancient translations to tracking marine life, amateurs are showing what’s possible with basic collaborative tools and cheap sensors.

Planet Four—the latest project from Zooniverse, a citizen science collective in the U.K.—is a case in point. By bringing together thousands of citizen astronomers to analyze pictures of Mars, researchers are able glean patterns that would normally go begging. "This is science we couldn’t do without the help of tens of thousands of people," says Zooniverse director Chris Lintott, an astronomer at the University of Oxford.

Mars holds a special place in the imagination. So, the response has been big—even for Zooniverse, which has a dozen other collaborations (784,686 members and counting). Since launching on January 8, participants have clocked "45 months of continual human effort"—and "that’s someone who doesn’t sleep or stop for coffee," Lintott points out.

"The idea that you can log on and see a piece of Mars in such detail, and no-one has been there before, is quite sexy," he says. "It’s not something we get in our daily lives. There’s something inspirational about it."

The citizens are looking at pictures, like the ones above, taken by N.A.S.A.'s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling for five years, capturing millions of ultra hi-res images. Lintott says by classifying certain markings, it’s possible to understand how much carbon dioxide is erupting beneath the surface, and which way winds are blowing. The images are from the south polar area—"the edge of the Martian Antarctic"—which is key to explaining the planet’s processes.

"All our projects share this sense of scientists suffering," he adds. "We’ve gotten good at capturing all this data—whether it’s Mars, or the camera trap images of the Serengeti—but not very good at making sense of it. We’re using people’s very good pattern recognition abilities to help us."

In fact, Lintott says the accuracy rate is higher than it would be professional researchers, even if they could do the work. Each image is viewed several times, weeding out the potential for mistakes.

The key is to the success of projects like Planet Four is to make the experience as "authentic" as possible, Lintott says. "One of the things we’ve learned is that people want it to be real. They want to contribute to science. If you have cheerful, reassuring messages like 'Thanks! Keep going!" they’ll stop believing, and go off and do something else."