Archive | February 2015

Calling All Undergrads: Spend A Summer Working on Planet Four in Taiwan


I’m a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Astronomy & Astrophysics at Academia Sinica (ASIAA)  in a Taipei, Taiwan. As part of the 2015 ASIAA Summer Student Program, we’re looking for an undergraduate student to come to Taipei for the summer, from July 1st-August 28th, to work on Planet Four related research.

Last year, Chuhong Mai participated in the program and helped get the map project information we need to make the final catalogs for the first Planet Four paper. As a result of her efforts last summer, Chuhong is going to be co-author on the paper. You can learn more about her experience at ASIAA and as part of the summer program here.

ASIAA operates in English, and all research will be conducted in English.  The description of this year’s project can be found here. The aim will be help develop tools to look at wind directions based on the Planet Four fan markings for one of the HiRISE targeted regions  (likely Inca City or Manhattan) and see how fan directions change from year to year. Details about the Summer Student Program including rules and restrictions can be found here.

Applications are due before March 20th. If you have questions or if you would  like to know more, you can contact me via email at  mschwamb AT

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 . Thanks for being a part of Planet Four, and thank you for your help.