2 Years On from BBC Stargazing Live

In the UK, tonight starts the latest installment of BBC Stargazing Live. Three nights of live astronomy television hosted by Professor Brian Cox and Dara Ó Briain.  Just over two years ago, we were preparing for the launch of the Planet Four live on television as part of Stargazing Live. Professor Chris Lintott from the BBC’s  Sky at Night and PI of the Zooniverse went out on the program broadcast live from Jodrell Bank and introduced to the world Planet Four,  asking for viewers help to map the seasonal fan and blotches visible in images of the Martian South Pole taken by the HiRISE camera.

For the past 9 years, the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been capturing stunning and dynamic images of the defrosting South Pole. During this time, carbon dioxide geysers loft dust and dirt through cracks in a thawing carbon dioxide ice sheet to the surface where it is believed that surface winds subsequently sculpt the material into dark fans observed from orbit. 30% of Mars’ atmosphere condenses out to form this ice sheet. Understanding the direction, frequency, and appearance of these fans (a proxy for the geysers) and how these properties are impacted by varying factors we can better understand the Martian climate and how it differs from Earth.

This is a project that we truly couldn’t do with out the help of citizen scientists and BBC Stargazing Live. Hundreds of thousands of fans are visible in HiRISE observations, but for years this rich dataset was not tapped to its full potential. Automated computer algorithms have not been able to accurately identify and outline individual fans in the HiRISE images,  but a human being intuitively can distinguish and outline these features. And thus Planet Four was born.

I can remember launch day like it was yesterday, waiting on the Talk Discussion tool for the flood of volunteers to start posting questions and sharing their thoughts and ideas about the images they were seeing. I and the rest of the Planet Four team anxiously waiting at our keyboards could tell immediately when the Planet Four segment aired. The response from Stargazing was incredible and overwhelming. Each night, the Zooniverse servers struggled to keep up serving images of Mars as the number of people on the site continued to rise. Thanks to the Stargazing Live viewers we were able to complete nearly all of the Season 2 and Season 3 HiIRSE monitoring campaign images.

So where are we now? Thanks to help of Planet Four volunteers including Stargazing Live viewers, we’ve made great progress since January 8, 2013. Over 4.6 million blotches and 3.8 million fans have been drawn to date (the great majority of these markings were made during BBC Stargazing Live). In the past two years, Planet Four has captured the equivalent of a full year of non-stop human attention (a single person working non-stop/no breaks for an entire year!). The science team has been working to create a software pipeline to combine the multiple classifications to identify fans and blotches. We have also been working to create an expert dataset classified by the science team for a very small subset of Planet Four images to compare to the volunteer classifications to  show that  Planet Four citizen scientists are very efficient and effective at detecting the seasonal fans and blotches in the HiRISE images.

I’m pleased to say the science team is very close to submitting the project’s first science paper to a journal before the end of the year (we’re aiming for end of Spring/Summer). We have more than half of the paper draft currently written. One of the last lines of the paper is:  ‘We thank all those involved in BBC Stargazing Live 2013.’ This is just the beginning. With this paper, we’ll be able to eventually  produce the largest areal coverage wind measurement of the Martian surface to date spanning two Martian years. These maps will reveal how the fan properties and numbers change from Martian year to year and location to location on the South Pole. We also have 3 more Martian seasons of HiRISE data that we’ve just barely scratched the surface of. The majority of these images have yet to be classified, including right before a Martian dust storm, so we can see how the dust storm has impacted the Martian climate and how long its effects last in the atmosphere and  the ice sheet by looking at the fans and geysers that are created in the seasons before and after the storm

This year the Zooniverse has something new up their sleeve that will be revealed during the broadcast, but while you’re waiting for the return of BBC Stargazing tonight, if you can spare a minute or two , we could use your continued help mapping the seasonal fans visible in the HiRISE images. There is so much of the South Pole (and 3 additional years of data to get through) that we have yet to study and explore! Classify a HiRISE tile or two at http://www.planetfour.org

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One response to “2 Years On from BBC Stargazing Live”

  1. John G Keegan says :

    Proud to be a part of it.

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