My Summer with Planet Four

Today we have a guest post from Chuhong Mai, an undergraduate student working on Planet Four this summer as part of the ASIAA Summer Student Program.

As a summer student at ASIAA (Institute of Astronomy & Astrophysics at Academia Sinica), I am studying seasonal processes on the South Pole of Mars with Dr.Meg Schwamb. Well, we are quite aware that fans and blotches appear and disappear on the South Pole as the seasons change. Via HiRISE on MRO mission, we can obtain unprecedented details of them but also a large amount of unprocessed data. We hope to make good use of the data in order to have a better understanding of their physical processes, yearly evolution and influence on Mars climate.

Our first problem is the position. With all the markings you’ve made on these HiRISE cut-outs, we need to know the precise locations and thus the distribution of them. The way the images you see are Planet Four are processed we can’t directly add the spacecraft information needed to  calculate the latitude and longitude straight from the x and y positions from your markings. Instead I’ve written a pipeline using the Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers (ISIS) to turn raw HiRISE data from Season 2 & 3  into pretty mosaics with the spacecraft information added. Now we are able to get the detailed greographic information of any point of interest. This means that the Planet Four team can now  measure the actual size and shape of these fans and blotches, as well as to project them on the true surface. Once we do the time series analysis, we can have a deep look on seasonal change.

In addition,  I’m also working on  ‘frost fans‘, which contain pretty blue or white stuff around or in the center of themselves. They are considered to possibly be the condensation of CO2 that come out of the vents,  but we actually have little knowledge of them. I’ll be examining images from Talk where volunteers have used hashtags to mark these features and seeing what I can learn about when and under what conditions these colored features appear. Perhaps the following study could reveal some clues to decode the puzzle.

Meet Chuhong

Name: Chuhong Mai

What is your current position and where/institution?

I am an undergraduate student in Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China. And now I am working as a summer student at the Institute of Astronomy & Astrophysics at Academia Sinica (ASIAA), Taiwan.

Where are you originally from/where did you grow up?

Jiangmen, Guangdong Province, China.

What are your research interests/what do you work on?

I am interested in the whole solar system, and solar systems beyond our own. For me they are places full of miracles and hopes. I’m curious about their origins, their histories and their future. Thus I work on planets, small bodies and planet formation.

Why are you interested in Mars?

Because of its mystery. I am a huge fan of science fiction, and Mars is always one of the most popular topics in sci-fi books and films. I like its red face and wonder what happened and is happening on it.

What is your favorite movie?

Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis

What is your favorite book?

<The Three Body Problem> by Cixin LIu (It’s not a mathematics textbook but science fiction.)

What is the song you currently can’t get out of your head?

Valder Fields by Tamas Wells

What three albums would you bring with you to a desert island?

<A Plea en Vendredi> by Tamas Wells, <Europa> by Ron Korb, <A Wish to the Moon> by Joe Hisaishi.

Favorite cocktail or beverage?

Milk tea.

Meet the Planet Four Team: Meg Schwamb

Today we have the next installment of our Meet the Planet Four Team series, featuring Meg Schwamb from the Science Team.


Image credit: Sundar Srinivasan


Name: Meg Schwamb

What is your current position and where/institution?

I am currently an Academia Sinica Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Astronomy & Astrophysics at Academia Sinica (ASIAA) located in Taipei, Taiwan.

Where are you originally from/where did you grow up?

I grew up on Long Island, New York in the United States (which means I’m obligated to get all the references to Long Island in Billy Joel songs)

What are your research interests/what do you work on?

I am interested in the fundamental questions of how our Solar System and others formed and evolved, as well as exploring the process of planet formation. I also study the outer Solar System, specifically the planetesimals that reside in the Kuiper Belt (the belt of icy bodies left over from planet formation orbiting  outside Neptune’s orbit) and beyond. I also am involved in the discovery and characterization of extrasolar planets (exoplanets), planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. In addition to being involved with Planet Four, I am a founding member of the Planet Hunters science team. Planet Hunters is a citizen science project enlisting the general public to search for the signatures of exoplanets in the public data from NASA’s Kepler mission.

In 3 lines explain your PhD thesis?

My thesis was studying the small icy planetesimals of the outer Solar System orbiting past Neptune in the region of the Kuiper belt and beyond. I used a wide-field survey to look for more objects like dwarf planet-sized Sedna, whose highly distant and eccentric orbit  cannot be explained by the current architecture of the Solar System. I didn’t find any new Sedna-like bodies in the outer Solar System, but I put constraints on the size and properties of the population.

Why are you interested in Mars?

I’m interested in studying the formation and evolution of all kinds of planets, dwarf planets, and planetesimals. What I find  so exciting about Mars is that it is one of our closest planetary neighbors, and we are reaching out and touching it! Mars is our best studied planet beyond the Earth. We are able to  explore the complex processes and evolution happening on Mars’ surface and atmosphere is such detail thanks to the rovers, landers, and orbiting spacecraft that NASA, ESA, and others have sent to the Red Planet.

What is your favorite movie?

One of my all time favorites is ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and a more recent favorite is ‘Her’.

What is your favorite book?

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

What is the song you currently can’t get out of your head?

My musical tastes are pretty eclectic and varied. There are always several songs in rotation I have playing on repeat since I can’t get them out of my head. There’s too many to just pick one song. I can settle on the top three of the moment: Sia’s “Chandelier”,  Fitz and the Tantrums’ “The Walker”, and Arcade Fire’s “We Exist”.

What three albums would you bring with you to a desert island?

Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”,  How to Destroy Angels’  “Welcome Oblivion” and Nine Inch Nails’ “With Teeth”.

Favorite cocktail or beverage?

Recently it has been a well made Manhattan, but I always love a glass of good champagne.

Meet the Planet Four Team: Chris Lintott

Today we have the next installment of our Meet the Planet Four Team series, featuring Chris Lintott, Principal Investigator (PI) of the Zooniverse  and PI of Galaxy Zoo.


Name: Chris Lintott

What is your current position and where/institution?

On a train somewhere in Hampshire, on my way back to Oxford where I’m a researcher in the department of physics & a research fellow at New College.

Where are you originally from/where did you grow up?

Torbay, South Devon.

What are your research interests/what do you work on?

Answering email, with a side line in galaxy evolution and formation and a smattering of exoplanet stuff.

In 3 lines explain your PhD thesis?

Paying attention to chemistry helps us understand star formation, but the chemistry is very sensitive to the environment in which the stars are forming. Also, I went to Hawaii and thought about galaxies.

In 3 lines explain what you do as part of the Zooniverse team?

Answer email. As principle investigator, I try to keep everyone in line and write the grant proposals that keep the whole thing running.

What was your role in Planet Four?

It was a conversation with Candy Hansen (while filming for the BBC) that got the project rolling. I’ve also given advice based on our existing projects.

Why are you interested in Mars?

I like all the ways it isn’t Earthlike – it’s such a strange and interesting place. So like home, and yet so different.

What is your favorite movie?

I just re watched Fargo and am a big Coen brothers fan in general.

What is your favorite book?

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

What is the song you currently can’t get out of your head?

Bellowhead, Gosport Nancy

What three albums would you bring with you to a desert island?

As much of the Ring cycle as I’m allowed.

Bach cello suites (the Yo-Yo Ma version)


Favorite cocktail or beverage?

Sazerac, and Clos Floridene. Not together.

Meet the Planet Four Team: Candy Hansen

Today we have the next installment of our Meet the Planet Four Team series, featuring Candy Hansen, principal investigator (PI) of Planet Four.

Image Credit: Planetary Science Institute

Image Credit: Planetary Science Institute

Name: Candice (“Candy”) Hansen-Koharcheck

What is your current position and where/institution?

I’m a Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute

Where are you originally from/where did you grow up?

I was born in Pasadena CA, and grew up near there in Pomona CA.  I got my B.A. in Physics from California State University, Fullerton and my Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles.

What are your research interests/what do you work on?

I work on climate and seasonal processes – on Mars, Triton and Pluto.  I also study the plumes of Enceladus.

In 3 lines explain your PhD thesis?

My PhD thesis was to model the climates of Pluto and Triton.  With my model I can predict when and where the polar caps will form, how warm the surface will be, and what the atmospheric pressure is as a function of time.  These predictions can be compared to observations, to learn about the physical properties of the surface and ices.

Why are you interested in Mars?

I love studying the polar caps of Mars – they are made out of dry ice, and when the ice evaporates in the spring there is lots of action!

 What do you do as Deputy Principal Investigator for HiRISE?

Early in the project I worked a lot on our processes for operating the camera. Now that is all very routine, and I focus on understanding seasonal processes.

What other NASA missions have you been involved in?

I have worked on Voyager, Cassini, Mars Polar Lander and Juno.

What is your favorite movie?

Star Wars of course, because I love science fiction.  Maybe not so obvious – French Kiss, The Dish, and Serenity.

What is your favorite book?

Heinlein’s “Time Enough for Love” is my all-time favorite, but I also like books by Carl Hiassen and John Grisham.

What is the song you currently can’t get out of your head?

Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls just wanna have fun’

What three albums would you bring with you to a desert island?

Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt, and …

Favorite cocktail or beverage?

Corona beer



Before we say goodbye to Inca City (for now)…

Thanks to your clicks, we’ve moved on from Inca City to a new region of the South Pole targeted in Season 1 dubbed Ithaca.  Before we completely say goodbye to Inca City for now (we’ll be back for Season 4 and likely Season 5 images), here are the top 25  Season 1 Inca City images favorited by you and the rest of the Planet Four community. Click below on any of the images to get a larger view and to get a slide show to peruse through the entire collection. If you’re interested in any particular image, you can find all the images in this Talk collection. If your favorite image didn’t make the list, share it in the comments below. Enjoy!

We’ll be back to Inca City soon, but in the meantime help map seasonal fans and blotches in the Season 1 HiRISE observations of Ithaca today at

New address: Ithaca, (85.2S, 181.4E), Mars

We have recently started showing you data from a new location! Have you noticed?

This new place is called Ithaca. It is located at lat =-85.2, lon = 181.401. Unlike Inca City (our most recent focus), this is a flat area, no considerable slopes are present here. Ithaca is located in the middle of this elevation map:


You see, that the red area has maximum elevation change of less than 80 meters. In the absence of slopes, we can say more confidently that the fans here are result of interaction of dusty CO2 jets with winds and not gravity simply pulling sand downhill. Winds direct dust and sand particles after they are lifted up into the atmosphere by the jets. It is very striking, that the fans look very similar in several consequent years of HiRISE observations. The usual year in Ithaca looks like this:


This is a mini-series of HiRISE images from early spring (a) progressing to late spring via (b) to (c) and finally to (d). Fist images that HiRISE returns each spring show large dark fans with the similar opening angles and similar directionality every year. This tells us that there is few variation in local weather from year to year.

When spring progresses, fans extend, later blue fans appear, and sometimes they take over most of the surface! Like in figure (c) – whole area is blue apart from really dark fans. This is one of the mysteries of Ithaca – we know from spectrometers, that those blue fans are fresh CO2 frost, but how comes fresh frost appears on the sides of the dark fans? Dark surface is warmer when exposed to sunlight and must prevent CO2 from forming there.

Another Ithaca mystery is its fan sizes. Here the fans grow to be huge: you see the scale bar on the first image? That is 100 m and the fans on the figure (d) are 2-3 times that long. It is larger then in most of other polar locations. For example Inca City, that must be familiar to you by now, has fans of only tens of meters. Currently scientist do not have models that is able to explain how such big fans form.

If you carefully compare left and right frames of the figure below, you can see quite some new fans appearing in the right frame.


Scientists would really like to know, how many of those appear each day and how big are they compared to the old fans. In this example new fans look small, but this is only one tiny area from Ithaca. To make a clear statement we really need to count them and outline their sizes. That is why Ithaca is now waiting for you to get marking!


Meet the Planet Four Team: Chris Snyder

Today we have the next installment of our Meet the Planet Four Team series, featuring Chris Snyder from the Zooniverse development team.chris

Name: Chris Snyder

What is your current position and where/institution?

Technical Project Manager at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, IL, US.

Where are you originally from/where did you grow up?

I was born in Philadelphia, PA. Lived there for a bit, then in equal times Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio until 2012 when I moved to Chicago.

In 3 lines explain what you do as part of the Zooniverse development team?

My primary task to manage development of Zooniverse projects. I also handle a large portion of ongoing project maintenance. Lastly, I spend a lot of time exploring ways of getting Zooniverse projects into the hands of more people.

Why do you find interesting about Mars?

It’s the first logical place for us to colonize in our solar system. Seems reasonable to learn as much as we can about it before we travel there!

What is your favorite movie?

Tie between The Matrix and The Prestige.

What is your favorite book?

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

What is the song you currently can’t get out of your head?

Just Jammin’ by Gramatik

What three albums would you bring with you to a desert island?

Ooo, that’s a tough one. Tool – Lateralus, Pendulum – Immersion, and Metallica – The Black Album

Favorite cocktail or beverage?

Bells Oberon. Sorry, not much of a cocktail drinker!

Meet the Planet Four Team: Anya Portyankina

Inspired in part by the Meet the Team on the Daily Zooniverse, we’re planning a series of posts to help you get to know better some of the people behind Planet Four. Our first Meet the Planet Four Team entry is  devoted to Anya Portyankina from the Science Team.


Image credit: The Planetary Society

Name: Ganna (Anya) Portyankina

What is your current position and where/institution?

I am currently a Research Associate at LASP (Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics) at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Where are you originally from/where did you grow up

I was born in the USSR but grew up in Ukraine.

What are your research interests/what do you work on?

I am interested in different active processes in our Solar System that involve ices. Ice-covered comets, polar regions of Mars, icy satellites of giant planets – in all these worlds interactions of ice with atmospheres, sunlight and other heat sources bring to life exciting exotic phenomena.

In 3 lines explain your PhD thesis?

My PhD thesis is about interaction of Martian polar ices with the atmosphere. The large part of it is about observations and modeling of cryo-venting – exactly what Planet Four is about. Another part is about polar clouds that are created at times when seasonal polar caps sublimate in spring.

Why are you interested in Mars?

I find Mars exciting because despite it is an alien and still mostly unknown world it it similar enough to our home planet and it can be reached by humans in not too remote future. Feels nice to work towards that goal.

What is your favorite movie?

“Into the wild” directed by Sean Penn

What is your favorite book?

This one is the toughest questions for me! I can probably reduce my absolute favorites to 3: “Definitely Maybe” by Strugatsky brothers (Soviet time SciFi novel), “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov, and “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez. They are so different that it is hard even to compare them, not speaking of ranking…

What is the song you currently can’t get out of your head?

“Rock’n’roll Nerd” by Tim Minchin

What three albums would you bring with you to a desert island?

Something jazzy, like Jeff Healey “Among friends”, something with a swing like Robbie Williams “Swing when you are winning”, and something good for dancing on the beach like DLG’s “Gotcha!”, but I’d rather have a radio!

Favorite cocktail or beverage?

Since I have moved to Boulder – definitely beer.

More about Planet Four Translations

Üdvözlünk a Planet Four oldalán! 欢迎光临第四行星!Willkommen bei Planet Vier! 歡迎光臨第四行星!

You might remember that Planet Four is available in traditional and simplified character Chinese, but did you know the site is also available  in German and Magyar(Hungarian)? We wanted to share a little bit more about some of the people who’ve helped make these translations possible.

Ning Ding helped verify the science content of the simplified Chinese character  translation. Here’s more about Ning in English and in simplified character Chinese:

Ning Ding is a Ph.D candidate of China University of Geosciences (Wuhan) major in structure geology.She is mainly interested in  the central uplifts of Martian impact craters and comparative planetology. She was a visiting student in HiRISE team in the US where she knew the Planet Four and participated in Chinese translation the website.

丁宁现在是中国地质大学(武汉)构造地质学专业博士生,研究兴趣主要为火星撞击坑中央隆起构造及比较行星学。曾作为访问学生在火星HiRISE项目组学习,并因此接触到Planet Four网站,继而参与Planet Four简体中文版的翻译工作。

Lukas Hackl helped translate Planet Four into German . Here’s more about Lukas in German and English:

My name is Lukas Hackl. I am from Austria and working for an IT company. I am interested in Astronomy, Photography, Motorcycle and other science. I like to be part of researches and help scientists around the world.

Mein Name ist Lukas Hackl. Ich komme aus Österreich und arbeite für eine IT-Firma. Ich interessiere mich für Astronomie, Fotografie, Motorrad und andere Wissenschaften. Es gefällt mir Teil von Forschungen zu sein und Wissenschaftlern auf der ganzen Welt helfen zu können.


Szatmáry László  helped translate Planet Four into Hungarian/Magyar . Here’s more about  László in Magyar and English:

So, I’m an Application Specialist in a Hungarian software company and a beginner amateur astronomer. I’m participated in numerous Zooniverse projects and I think it is a great way to help science and scientist in their works. I have only one bigger experience in translating, I was one of the Hungarian translators of I’m interested in sports, chess, stars and environment defense.

Alkalmazástechnikai szakember vagyok egy magyar szoftvervállalatnál illetve kezdő amatőrcsillagász. Több Zooniverse projektben is részt veszek, szerintem ez egy hatalmas lehetőség a tudomány és tudósok segítésére. Jelentősebb fordítói tapasztalatom eddig a magyarítása volt, itt egy voltam a többi fordító között. Érdekel a sport, a sakk, a csillagok és a környezetvédelem.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 12.01.03 PM

Are you interested in helping translate Planet Four into other languages? Find out more here on how to join the effort.

Gold Standard Data

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We wanted to give you a quick update on what the science team is up to. We’ve been hard at work making progress towards the goal of completing the project’s first paper, thanks to your help marking the fans and blotches in the season 2 and season 3 cutouts. Fingers crossed, we aim to submit the paper to a scientific journal by the early Fall.

We’ve been working on developing the best method to combine your classifications to identify blotches and fans in the cutouts you see on Planet Four. About 30-100 people look at each cutout, and we need to combine those markings together to get the exact locations and shapes of the seasonal features. This is one of the aspects the team is thinking about, but one of the other things we’ve started working on is looking at how well the project can identify fans and blotches in the images.  You might think that this is obvious just looking at the images that the dark fans pop out on the screen, but for the paper we need to prove this is true. This is important because if we want to look at how carbon dioxide geyser/jet activity changes over time, we need to be able to show that the project as a whole can really identify most of the fans and the blotches in the cutouts we show on the site.

Some of the other Zooniverse projects have compared to simulated or synthetic data that was shown and classified on the site (so they knew what the right answer was for the synthetic data) or there was already a catalog of a portion of the data that could be used to compare to.  It’s difficult to make a simulated HiRISE image with fans. As you’ve seen from the images, there is so much variation in color and texture of  Mars and same with the the shapes, sizes, and even color of fans that this would be likely be impossible to get  just right.  So what about a previously made catalog of a small subset of the data we’re showing on Planet Four? There are so many blotches and fans that no one has attempted this on a large enough scale for us to fully compare the results from Planet Four to.  Planet Four really is  making the first map of these dark seasonal features in the HiRISE monitoring images of the Martian South Pole. The science team didn’t even know at launch exactly how frequently in the images you’re looking at on the site that you’ll see fans and blotches. You clicks are telling us the answer.

Even if there was such a catalog of fans and blotches to compare to,  it would be done in a different way (not done using the web interface we have for Planet Four) that likely has its own biases towards detection and non-detection of the seasonal features. So what do we do? Well,  the science team can make our own ‘gold standard‘ dataset by classifying a small subset of the cutouts we showed for Season 2 and Season 3 (a few % of the entire Season 2 and Season 3 cutouts) in the interface and use those markings in the same way as a catalog. Candy, Anya, and Michael have stared at many many images of fans and blotches from HiRISE, and I had one of my graduate preliminary exam project on mapping the fans and blotches in images from a previous lower resolution camera (Mars Orbiter Camera – MOC). So we can argue that we should be able to identify fans and blotches reasonably well in the Planer Four images and use our markings to create a catalog which we are calling the gold standard dataset. Other Zooniverse projects, such as Snapshot Serengeti,  have done something similar.

Right now, we’re going through a mostly random selection of cutouts from Season 2 and Season 3, marking the fans and blotches we see with the same classification interface on the Planet Four website. To get a large enough sample of cutouts reviewed, we’re each mainly marking different cutouts than each other, but we do have a small amount of overlap for us to compare our results to each other and understand the differences. For example, I’ve looked at less images of HiRISE fans than the rest of the science team, that might make me more liberal with my markings than say Candy or Anya. The overlap should help us understand and calibrate for those kinds of effects between the different science team markings.

It might seem like we’re testing you but we’re really testing the project. This gold standard dataset is going to help us explore and show how well Planet Four as a whole can identify the seasonal fans and blotches in the images from HiRISE. Without the analysis and comparison to the gold standard data, we would just have a catalog of fans and blotches on the surface. The comparison to the gold standard data  is a really vital part of the project, and allows us to study how the Martian climate impacts the formation of the seasonal blotches  and fans from Martian year to year and throughout a given season.

We’ll keep you posted about the gold standard data and our analysis as it continues to develop. Stay tuned to the blog for more updates about the paper as we get further into the Summer.


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