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…

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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)

Adding Some Red (Planet) to the Holiday Season

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona   (http://www.uahirise.org/ESP_038510_0985 )

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona (http://www.uahirise.org/ESP_038510_0985 )

Adding more red (planet) to this holiday season, another new HiRISE image of Inca City was publicly released by the HiRISE team this month. This is the 6th image from the sequence taken this fall as part of Season 5 of the seasonal monitoring campaign (We’re currently showing images from Season 4 on Planet Four).  The image sequence was released as part of the public vote we organized with the help from our friends on the HiRISE team. You can find the rest of the sequence here.

Close to the Sun

Mars is slowly coming towards summer in the southern hemisphere and the same time to the perihelion on its orbit around the Sun.

This project is focused on fans in Martian southern polar areas. But do you know why southern? There are similar features in the northern polar areas, but they are much smaller. In fact, for quite some time scientists believed that the kind of activity that produces dark fans and blotches (cold CO2 jets) did not happen in the north. They thought so, because they could not see any signs of it in the north. Or better to say, they could not resolve it. At that time, from 1996 to 2005, the images of martian ground were coming from the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) and their highest ground resolution was 1 m/pix. It is enough to resolve large southern fans, but just not enough for the northern smaller ones! Only when HiRISE came around and imaged northern dunes, we saw that there are blotches and fans too. So, why the scales of them are so different? There might be several explanations. Below I will offer you one, which is probably the first to think about.

Martian seasons in southern and northern hemispheres are not equal.

Mars has elliptical orbit, its eccentricity is 0.0934 (e = 0 would be a circle). It is small, but in the planetary scale it takes Mars some 42 million kilometers closer to the Sun in its closest approach than in the furthest position on the orbit. The closest approach is called perihelion, from Greek “near the Sun”. It happens during summer in the southern hemisphere.

So, Mars is closer to Sun when it is summer in the south – this means during southern summer it gets more solar energy than during northern. Unlike our Earth, Mars does not have a huge water reservoir of the oceans to dampen temperature variations. These 2 facts together lead to that southern summer is hotter than the northern. But how does this affects what happens in spring? In two ways: first, the amplitude of change from cold dark winter to hot bright summer is larger in the south. And second: Mars is moving faster on its orbit when it is closer to perihelion. So the changes happen faster!

Every day in spring the amount and strength of sunshine increases. In the north this increase is steady but slow. It probably makes seasonal ice layer subliming steadily from the top faster than creating under-ice gas cavities that burst and create cold CO2 jets and associated fans. While in the south every day energy increase is more like a jump: getting these bursts makes for higher probability of under-ice explosions. And lets us observe beautiful fans!

Meet the Team: Darren McRoy

Today we have the next installment of our Meet the Planet Four Team series, featuring Darren McRoy from the Zooniverse team.


Name: Darren McRoy

What is your current position and where/institution?

I am currently the Zooniverse Community Builder at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, IL.

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

I was born in Beverly, MA, and raised in Andover, MA. I moved to IL to attend Northwestern University, starting in 2006.

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

My primary role is to be a liaison with our citizen science community as we continue to expand the Zooniverse in exciting new directions. I also assist in general communications efforts, such as producing and editing written content for projects. Currently, I am working closely with our designers and developers on the next generation of Zooniverse’s Talk discussion system.

Why do you find interesting about Mars?

Both the possibility of human habitation and the incredible barriers that exist towards making it a reality.

What is your favorite movie?

Airplane! (1980)

What is your favorite book?

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

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

“And Then There Was Silence,” Blind Guardian, A Night at the Opera, 2002

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

Land of the Free, Gamma Ray, 1995

The River, Bruce Springsteen, 1980

Thriller, Michael Jackson, 1982

Favorite cocktail or beverage?

Any witbier/Belgian white beer


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