Happy Chinese New Year

As many of you know, I’m currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Astronomy & Astrophysics at Academia Sinica in Taiwan. For the past year and half I’ve spent most of my time living and working in Taipei. Right now  in China and Taiwan, as well as  some other places around globe, people are celebrating the Chinese New Year (often referred to as the Spring Festival ), which is based on the lunar calendar. The celebration lasts in total 15 days, and it’s a time people gather and celebrate with family. Chinese New Year is in full swing, and as I’m writing this I can hear some fireworks being set off in the distance.

As part of the  festivities, ASIAA created a New Year’s greeting card. The director of ASIAA asked for images  and figures representing the range of research going on at the institute to use on the card. I send in images from Planet Four selected with some help from Planet Four Talk, and the images made the cut. Can you spot the two below?


Image credit: ASIAA

For those celebrating, we wish you a Happy Chinese New Year and a happy and healthy year of the ram.


A Different View of Mars


Image Credit: Chris Lintott, Becky Smethurst, Sandor Kruk, Ed Paget, CSO

Okay, so this is not your typical view of Mars. You’re used to the HiRiSE images  we show on the site, but the above figure is Mars too. We’ll it’s a spectrum of the upper atmosphere taken by some of the Galaxy Zoo lot , a little over a week ago. I’m collaborating wit them to look at a sample of blue elliptical galaxies  in the submillimeter using the aptly named Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO) equipped with the Leighton telescope. It’s a 10.4-m single dish telescope located on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. I’ve observed with it remotely, but Chris Lintott, Becky  Smethurst, and Sandor Kruk from the University of Oxford, and Ed Paget from the Adler Planetarium went up the mountain for this run. Ed’s written an account of the trip that you might be interested in reading: Night 1, Night 2, Night 3, Night 4, Night 5, Night 6.

Leighton telescope at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory with intrepid observers (left to right): Ed Paget, Sandor Kruk, Chris Lintott, and Becky Smethurst. Image Credit: Ed Paget

As a planetary astronomer I’ve pointed telescopes before, but I’ve observed in the optical and mid-infrared wavelengths using a big hunk of polished glass to collection the photons.  This observing project is the first time I’ve ever observed in the submillimeter and used a dish telescope. The aim of this project  is to look at the carbon monoxide (CO) in blue elliptical galaxies and see what it says about star formation. We’re actually looking at in particular  (2-1) rotational electron transition of the CO molecule. This transition occurs in the rest frame of the gas at 230 GHz, wavelengths where our eyes are not sensitive.

Turns out that the CSO uses Mars as a frequent calibrator and pointing target for the Leighton telescope. The first time I pointed the telescope back last July when we had observing time was the first time I’ve ever observed Mars, and it was just to check the pointing! There’s a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2), as you know.  30% of Mars’ atmosphere condenses out into the slab of  CO2 ice in the winter on the South pole that the geysers (and as a result the seasonal fans) will be spawned from. There’s also a lot of CO. CO in Mars’ atmosphere was detected and observed in the submillimeter.back in the 1960s ad 1970s. The result is  a strong absorption feature when you observe the disk of Mars and its atmosphere. You can use it to step the beam across as you tune the telescope and find the optimized pointing that gives you the strongest signal (and thus best pointing). So nightly the Galaxy Zoo gang were using Mars for calibration observations at the start of their nightly observations. It’s  a very different use for Mars’ atmosphere, but there is useful info in the spectrum you can extract about the state of the Martian atmosphere. The width of the line and depth tell you about the global amount of CO and the global average wind speeds. The guess from the Galaxy Zoo lot that night was that they were seeing something on the order of 10 km/s winds.

With Planet Four, we’ll also be getting estimates of the wind speeds on Mars, but from the bottom of the atmosphere at the boundary layer that meets the surface. So we’ll be probing a different regime that what the can be studied in the submillimeter. Assuming a particle size,  the length of the fans can tell us the strength of the wind.  The direction the fan is pointing in gives the direction that the wind is heading in. We’ll be able to compare those velocities and directions we extract from you markings to that produced by global climate models of the Martian atmosphere.

Making the Final Push for the First Paper

After two years, thanks to your time and effort we’re the closest ever to submitting the first Planet Four science paper based on Season 2 and Season 3 HiIRSE observations. To make the final push to get the paper submitted in the next several months to a scientific journal,  the science team has switched to having telecons every two weeks.  As of today, we’ve got more than half the paper draft written. Michael is working on creating the catalog of fans and blotches by combining the multiple classifier markings for each cutout. I’m in the middle of analyzing the gold standard data  where the science team classified a small subset of the tiles  to compare to the fan and blotch catalog in order to assess  the accuracy and recall rate of Planet Four at identifying fans and blotches. Chuhong has completed the pipeline to get the map projection and spacecraft information we need.  Everyone, including Anya and Candy, has been working on the paper text.

Thank you for helping us get this far. We couldn’t do this without you, and we still need your help. After doing some checks on the tiles, we realized that a subset of the Season 2 and Season 3 tiles still need classifications to get them over our 30 classification completion limit. We’ve put these images back into rotation on the site, and paused most of the recent Inca City data until these tiles are completed. The faster we get the classifications for the remaining Season 2 and Season 3 images, the faster we can get to producing the final catalog for the first paper and start showing the latest Inca City images again.

If you have some time to spare, let’s make the final push for the first paper. Help map the final set of Season 2 and Season 3 HiRISE observations today at http://www.planetfour.org . Thanks for being a part of Planet Four, and thank you for your help.

HiRISE’s Beagle 2 Detective Story

On Christmas Day 2003, the British lander Beagle 2 entered Mars’ atmosphere and was never heard from again. It had hitchhiked a ride off of ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. The lander successfully departed Mars Express and then nothing. Mars is hard, and many a spacecraft has ended in demise trying to orbit around or land on the red planet. Beagle 2 never phoned home. Its fate was unknown.

This is before the arrival of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)  and its high resolution HiRISE camera. MRO entered orbit in 2006 and is the highest resolution imager sent to a planet in our Solar System. Now a days it is used to capture the descent of Phoenix lander and Curiosity rover (which is a challenging feat in itself), but that information gives a glimpse of what was going on if something goes awry in those 7 minutes of terror of landing, entry and descent. Later it can be used to to spot the lander on the surface. But the only image of Beagle2 at the time of its’ landing attempt is the separation image from it’s mothership Mars Express.


Departing image snapped by the VMC camera aboard Mars Express after Beagle 2 separated and was on its way to the Martian surface on December 2003 Image Credit: ESA – European Space Agency

For 12 years it’s fate wasn’t known. HiRISE can resolve objects down to the size of a small card table on Mars’ surface. The predicted landing ellipse for Beagle 2 was imaged by HiRISE and scientists scoured the images looking for something in essence not red. They looked for something bright and shiny in the images that could be Beagle 2.  And they succeed. A few days ago, ESA and NASA announced that the Beagle 2 and its used parachute had been found.

The British lander wasn’t found in pieces scattered across the surface. It was intact. It had successfully landed on the surface. A huge accomplishment and success for the United Kingdom. They stuck the landing but the deployment had some hitch preventing Beagle 2 from communicating with Earth.With HiRISE’s resolution, the images reveal the rough outline of the lander. Beagle 2 had a petal design. All the petals had to deploy for the communications antenna to be exposed and able to send/receive signals. It appears that Beagle 2 only partially deployed (a broken cable, an air bag that didn’t inflate or deflate, a rock underneath could be one of the multitude of reasons that could have prevented the final panels from unfurling), with that vital communications antenna blocked it ended the mission.



Beagle_sharpened b_w image_Right_Bright_obj_300percent_sharp_edited-1_labelled
We now know what happened to Beagle 2 that Christmas Day back at 2003. Learning the British spacecraft landed successfully will help engineer future European Mars missions. I also think the ending to this detective story serves as a reminder for how powerful the HiRISE camera is. Of the imagers aboard spacecraft orbiting Mars now and in the past, HiRISE is the only instrument capable of spotting Beagle 2. It’s with its keen eyes that it resolves the hundreds of thousands of fans dotting the South Pole of Mars that we ask for your help to map at http://www.planetfour.org

Using Tag Groups to Collect Images on Talk

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More on making tagged group collections from the Darren on the Zooniverse blog

Originally posted on Zooniverse:

Hashtags are an important element of how the current generation of Zooniverse’s Talk discussion system* helps to power citizen science. By adding hashtags to the short comments left directly on classification objects, users can help each other (and the science teams) find certain types of objects—for instance, a #leopard on Snapshot Serengeti, #frost on Planet Four, or a #curved-band on Cyclone Center. (As on Twitter, hashtags on Talk are generated using the # symbol.)

One of the ways in which zooites can take advantage of hashtags is by using Talk’s tag group feature. A tag group (also called a “keyword collection”) is a collection that automatically populates with all of the objects that have been given a specific hashtag by a volunteer.

For instance, here is a Galaxy Zoo tag group that populates with all Galaxy Zoo objects that have been tagged #starforming. It will continue to automatically add new…

View original 325 more words

Summer Has Come to the Martian South Pole

Like the Earth, Mars is tilted on its axis which produces seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter just like the Earth has.  It’s during the Spring and early Summer in the South Pole (and in dunes in the Northern hemisphere), that the  fans and blotches that you map in the images in the classification interface appear.


Solar insolation over its orbit – Image credit: http://www-mars.lmd.jussieu.fr/mars/time/solar_longitude.html

Yesterday marked the official start of Summer on the South Pole of Mars and the shortest day of the year in the Martian Southern Hemisphere. The carbon dioxide ice sheet that once covered places like Inca City, Manhattan, and Ithaca should be gone or nearly gone at this point. The dark fans and blotches imaged by HiRISE in August-November of last year (and you can now map those images from Inca City in that sequence on the site) have now disappeared back into the regolith. The days will begin to get shorter and the HiRISE seasonal monitoring campaign will eventually switch to the Northern hemisphere. But the geysers and fans will be back in the South  and so will the HiRISE images starting around mid 2016.

In the meantime, we’ve got plenty of images of fans and blotches needing your help to map at http://www.planetfour.org




Brand New Images of Inca City!


For the past while we’ve been focusing on Inca City, and now we have even more images for you to explore. As our way of saying thanks for the hard work and time you put into Planet Four over the past two years, we’ve uploaded the 6 HiRISE images (find out more in here and here) that were publicly released by our friends on the HiRISE team based on your vote back in August.

The cutouts shown on Planet Four are HiRISE images are nearly as close to right off the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as we can get. These observations span  from this past August,when the sun began to rise about the horizon ( the start of the Season 5 monitoring campaign), to as recent as November of last year.

The images will add to our understanding of the South Pole and its seasonal processes. We have already Season1-3 of Inca City classified thanks to your help. The science team is working now on analyzing those results. We have Season 4 and now 5 of Inca City soon to come with your clicks. These new images will expand the baseline we have on the behavior of the geysers,fans, and blotches to 5 Martian years.

If you have a moment or two to spare, please help by mapping fans and blotches today at http://www.planetfour.org.


Happy 2nd Birthday Planet Four

It has been two years since we went public with the Planet Four citizen science project. Our volunteers (you!) have been amazing. We hope you enjoy looking at these images of Mars, taken of very non-earthly terrain. One of my favorite things to do is to visit the chat boards on Talk. I enjoy reading the conversations and seeing you all interacting.

Please know that your efforts are very much appreciated! We are working on our first scientific publication. We have had some technical challenges to solve, but I think that after this first paper the others will flow more quickly. Meanwhile we continue to collect great data and lengthen our time span of observations.

Believe it or not we are hoping for another large dust storm. We have ideas about interannual variability in the weather on Mars and how that affects the seasonal activity. But we need another dust storm and then another period of recovery to test our hypotheses.

Some of you have wondered when we might start putting out images of spring in the northern hemisphere to analyze. We’d like to be sure we have the problems on our end solved, and we have ideas about how to improve your interface to the images. So it will be a while yet, but it is definitely something I’d like to see happen!

Candy Hansen
Planet Four Principal Investigator

Help celebrate Planet Four’s birthday by mapping fans and blotches today at http://www.planetfour.org

Happy New Earth Year

Happy New Earth Year, Earthlings! Thanks for all of your help this year.  If you’re a Martian, you’ll have to wait another few months  (June 18, 2015 to be exact) to celebrate Mars Year 32 drawing to a close . That’s because Mars takes nearly twice as long ( 687 days) as the Earth to complete one revolution around the Sun. To mark another Earth year of Planet Four, we have gathered together some favorite images suggested on Talk.  Enjoy!


Merry Fans of Manhattan

Season’s Greetings. From all of the Planet Four team to all of you on Earth and Mars, we wish you a very merry Earth solstice, Happy Holidays, and a very happy new Earth Year.


Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Another holiday treat released by the HiRISE team this December was a 3-D image or anaglyph of Manhattan taken in November. You can find the full image here.

If you throw your red and blue 3-D glasses on, you should see the troughs of the spiders channels with fans dotting the surface. With these observations planetary scientists can measure depths of the channels and slopes of terrain. These images are created by combining two images of the same location (called a stereo pair) where HiRISE was oriented at different angles to the surface. You can read about the details here.

And if you’re looking for a cocktail for your new year’s party – check out this year’s Zooniverse cocktail list including a Planet Four themed drink (the last door of the Zooniverse’s advent calendar)


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