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Macclesfield (informally) on Mars

Thanks to everyone who voted in our poll to nickname the next target region of Planet Four. After 406 votes cast, you can see the final tallied results for yourself below.

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After a tight race with Potsdam, Macclesfield has emerged victorious and will be the chosen informal name that we will use from now on to refer to the HiRISE target  located at -85.4  degrees N Latitude and 103.9 degrees East Longitude.  Below is a view of the newly nicknamed region. Note that this is an informal name for the area on the Martian South Pole. We’ll use the name internally within Planet Four and to refer to it in publications, but this name has not been adopted as the location’s formal name by the International Astronomy Union. We have updated the text in the current Planet Four  paper draft to reflect the new nickname.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona -

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona –

The Earthly version of Macclesfield is the home to Jodrell Bank Observatory located on the outskirts of the town. Jodrell  Bank is home to the large Lovell Telescope (currently the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world)  and  BBC Stargazing Live, which is broadcast live yearly from outside of Macclesfield. Planet Four launched on BBC Stargazing Live on January 2013. The name was suggested as an homage to the launch of Planet Four and BBC Stargazing Live.


Lovell Telescope (animation credit: Zooniverse )

Lovell Telescope (animation credit: Zooniverse) – Original image source

Season 1 images from the new crowned  Martian  Macclesfield are live on the original Planet Four right now.Classify fans and blotches in Macclesfield at




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

One Earth Year of Planet Four in Images

Planet Four’s 1st birthday is on Wednesday. To celebrate and thank you for all of your help,  below are the 50 most popular images classified.  We tallied the number of people who favorited each image we’ve shown in the past year, and those in the gallery below in order came up on top. Click below on any of the images to get a larger view and to get a slide show to peruse through the entire collection. If you’re interested in any particular image, you can find all the images in this Talk collection. Help us celebrate by mapping some fans and blotches today at

More on Planet Four

Greetings Earthings,

Hi, I’m Meg Schwamb a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University and member of the Planet Four Team. The response from BBC Stargazing viewers has been amazing and we want to thank all of you for participating in the project. Thanks for helping us explore the surface of Mars and study the seasonal processes ongoing on the fourth planet from the Sun.

The images we’re asking you to classify come from HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging NASA’s camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). MRO has been orbiting Mars since late 2006.  HiRISE is a high resolution camera that is capable of seeing features the size of a dining room table on the surface of the Red Planet. This camera has been giving us the most detailed images of Mars that we can use to study how the surface changes with differing seasons and explore the geology of Mars from orbit. In addition MRO has helped keep rovers like  NASA’s Curiosity ad Opportunity safe, with the capability to identify large rocks at potential landing sites that could damage a rover during landing.You might already be familiar with HiRISE images. MRO and HiRISE caught Curiosity on August 5, 2012  in the act as it was parachuting down to the surface to it’s future  home at Gale Crater.


NASA’s Curiosity parachuting to the surface of Mars imaged by HiISE and MRO Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona


Zoom in of Curiosity descent Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona

On Planet Four, you’re seeing images of the South Pole of Mars. We are asking you to mark these beautiful dark fans and dark blotches that appear and disappear during the Spring and Summer on the South Pole of Mars. During the winter carbon dioxide (CO2) condenses from the atmosphere onto the ground and forms the seasonal ice sheet.   The ice begins to sublimate in the spring, and the seasonal cap retreats. There we see over the Martian spring and summer these dark fans and blotches. They begin to 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.

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Seasonal fans marked in the Planet Four interface


More fans and blotches


More fans and blotches

Later in the spring/summer season as the ice thins that we see these channels have been carved in the surface. Many originate from a single point and radiate outward. Others just like a patches of swiggly lines crisscrossing or in orderly rows. Those ridges are channels in the soil that are sculpted by carbon dioxide gas. These veins in the images are what we call “spiders” or araneiform  terrain.


spiders-like or araneiform terrain with channels carved by carbon dioxide gas


spiders-like or araneiform terrain with channels carved by carbon dioxide gas

spiders-like  or araneiform  terrain with channels carved by carbon dioxide gas

spiders-like or araneiform terrain with channels carved by carbon dioxide gas

spiders-like  or araneiform  terrain with channels carved by carbon dioxide gas. Here you can see there are some fans that appear to be originating from geysers that develop in these channels

spiders-like or araneiform terrain with channels carved by carbon dioxide gas. Here you can see there are some fans that appear to be originating from geysers that develop in these channels

Here’s how we think they form: In the spring/ summer when the sun come up the sun heats the base of the ice sheet the ice sublimates on the bottom creating carbon dioxide gas that carves these channels or spider-like features. The trapped carbon dioxide gas is rushing around the bottom carving these channels and tries to exploit any weaknesses in the ice sheet. If it can the gas propagates through  cracks in the ice sheet the gas escaping  into the atmosphere in geysers. The gas  bringing along dust and dirt to the surface that we think get blown by surface winds into the beautiful fans we ask to mark or if no wind the blotches we ask you to map. This morphological phenomenon is unlike anything seen on Earth. You can learn more about all of this process we think is happening on the surface in our previous blog post.

We want to study how these fans form, how they repeat from Spring to Spring and also what they tell us about the surface winds on the South Polar cap. We only have very few limited wind measurements from spacecraft we’ve landed on Mars. If the fans are places where the wind is blowing, then they tell us the direction and the strength of the wind.  Blotches then tell us where there is no wind.Your mapping of the fans and blotches would help provide  largest surface wind map of Mars.

Over 10,000  participants worldwide have helped classify 340,052 MRO images. But we still need your help. There are many more images still waiting to be mapped. Help us out at today.