Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – David Bowie was right! Part II

Today we have a guest post by Planet Four volunteer Peter Jalowiczor.

As a Planet Four contributor for a number of years this blog is a description of a presentation I recently gave at my local Astronomical society. It was based, of course, on my P4 work and included a preliminary discussion on Mars before starting on the focus of the talk – this project.  About two months earlier I had given a talk based on material provided by Meg so everyone was already familiar with the project as well as everyone involved. Here is how the second talk was structured.

Introduction to P4

P4 is a citizen science project designed to help planetary scientists identify and measure features on the surface of Mars, the images on the site are around the Southern polar region, an area of Mars that we know little about and the majority of which have never before been seen by human eyes!

Mars throughout the Ages

Following the introduction came a brief discussion of the history of observation from the first observations of planetary motion by Kepler and the first telescopic observations of Mars by Galileo, to maps (of Mars) by Christiaan Huygens, Giovanni Cassini on to Beer & Madler, Richard Proctor, Schiaparelli, Camille Flammarion and of course Percival Lowell and his famous Martian Canals. But, how was this all relevant to P4? The answer was that the HiRISE experiment on the MRO spacecraft was mapping areas around the South Pole…

Mars in the Solar System

How does Mars compare as a planet within the terrestrial group? Following a comparative overview of the five terrestrial bodies (including the Moon) in the inner Solar System.  In this group, Mars is intermediate in its properties. For example, compared to the largest body (the Earth) and the smallest (the Moon) it displays features on its surface, which are Earth-like: evidence of river valleys, lakes and the likelihood of an ancient Ocean in the Northern hemisphere. Whereas in the Southern hemisphere, the landscape is more primitive and cratered, more Moon-like. A discussion into why this was so and the importance of the surface area to volume ratio and its effect on planetary evolution across the terrestrial group. Mars’ properties in its own right was briefed.

The Planet Four Project

A detailed description of the project starting with the HiRISE experiment. From an altitude of 200 to 400 kilometers above Mars, surface images are acquired containing individual, basketball-size (30 to 60 centimeters) pixels, allowing features 1.2m to 2.4m across to be resolved. Large swaths of the surface are imaged: 20,000 x 126,000 pixels and the image is broken up into individual P4 tiles.


Citizen scientists mark dark fans and dark blotches that appear and disappear during Spring/ Summer around the South Pole of Mars. The dark fans and blotches appear in the Southern spring when the ice cap begins to thaw and sublimate back into the atmosphere. The fans and blotches then disappear at the end of the summer when there is no more ice left. How do these fans form, how they repeat from Spring to Spring? What does this tell us about the surface winds on the South Pole?  How would these features enable scientists to build-up a global map of wind-directions on Mars.

30 images (tiles) were shown from categories such as: #spiders, #fans, #blotches, #yardangs, #dendritic features, #Mars-has-the-blues…


Results of work carried out by myself. Occasionally, during classification, the #measurement tag was used by myself to measure various features within the tile. This started out as no more than an intention to log the size of features. After a few years a few hundred measurements had accumulated.

I found that:

  • This was biased towards the measuring of blotches.
  • 31-40m was the modal, or most commonly occurring size of blotch within the tile.
  • 10m-90m – fan sizes were grouped in this region.
  • Where the blotch, spider or fan went outside the range, an attempt was made to estimate its size.
  • The images of the tiles here ranged from ~150m x 200m to 366m x 475m.

However, the constraints of the tile parameters mean that the sizes may not be a true reflection of reality; and this was a simple experiment in science, The  results could be improved with a larger sample size (more measurements) particularly if measurements taken outside the tiles.


This image was taken with the Sun about 0 deg above the horizon and started a lot of discussions how these channels looked like ridges. Particularly with such a low Sun angle.


Linear venting. What evidence was there for cracking in the Martian surface? One member asked before this image came up and was discussed!


My favourite spider…


This is based on questions/ discussions, which came up both during and after the lecture.  Some I answered such as the linear venting (to the question below) as it was asked before the relevant slide came up! For some of the other questions I gave partial answers and we agreed that this should be forwarded on to Meg, and the Planet Four Science Team is going to answer these in a following blog post.

  • What evidence is there for cracking (of the ice) in the Martian surface?
  • Was there certainty that the channels were not ridges? (Yes, this is an optical illusion!)
  • Where does the blue colour come from?
  • Is the North Polar region of Mars going to be investigated in the same way as the South polar region?
  • What height are the geysers?
  • Is there an imaging dataset, perhaps an experiment on a satellite, which could enable these heights to be measured more accurately?
  • How often do we return to each of the imaged areas? Surely there must be some follow-up to see how the features have developed.

And finally!

The talk started with the good news of a certain Sagan Medal recipient and ended with the news that there was now an alternative to Mars bars with Martian cake, however this had to be refrigerated at Martian polar temperatures…


2 responses to “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – David Bowie was right! Part II”

  1. John G Keegan says :

    Nice one Peter. A most enjoyable read. Great choice of images too. Nice of you to point people towards that ‘Sagan Medal’ article. (We work alongside intellectual giants, eh?). Looking forward to Part lll, as and when. 🙂

    Cheers, Kitharode.

    • Peter Jalowiczor says :

      Hi John,

      Thanks! I now wish I’d put more of the images up as of the 30 images chosen, but tried to include as much variety as possible in the ones I showed.

      Anyway, I also introduced the other members of the Research team and Moderators involved in this project culminating in the meeting at Oxford University in 2015. But, this is very true – I enjoy working with scientists as I have great respect for such people (as well as those I meet on projects like these).

      As to Part III, perhaps you could round this all up? Bit of a long drive, but a great group at the society…


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