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NASA scientists need your help finding clouds on Mars

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Clouds on Mars are wispy due to the thin atmosphere. And algorithms have trouble identifying them. That is why NASA is asking for help from people online. The project is called Cloudspotting on Mars. And one of its leaders is NASA's scientist Armin Kleinboehl, who walked me through how to help.

How much base of information should I have on the atmosphere? Do I need to be an expert on the atmosphere to be able to do this?

ARMIN KLEINBOEHL: Anybody can do this. Anybody who has a computer with a web browser and they can look at the computer screen can do this. My mother can do this. She works on that tool. And she's not a scientist or an academic.

MARTINEZ: Armin, I hope your mother didn't hear you say that.

KLEINBOEHL: I'm sure she's OK with that.

MARTINEZ: She's OK with it? Good. I don't want to ruin any mother-son relationship here. OK. So I happen to have a computer with a web browser right in front of me. So let's walk through how someone like me can help identify clouds on Mars. I've got the webpage pulled up. And I'll follow along with you. What should I be looking at first here?

KLEINBOEHL: So if you pull up the webpage, Cloudspotting on Mars, you get to the landing site. And it says, help us find exotic clouds high in the Martian atmosphere. Because of the measurement, geometry, these clouds appear as arches in the data set. So that's what we're looking for. We're looking for the peaks of those arches, which correspond then to the actual altitude of the cloud.

MARTINEZ: But when it says to decide if something is an arch, it clearly looks like an arch. Like, imagine the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. That's exactly what it would look like. And is that what we're all looking for?

KLEINBOEHL: That's what you're looking at.

MARTINEZ: So to mark the arch - say I'm going through the images. And I'm pretty sure I see an arch exactly as you've described it, with the two legs. How do I go about marking the arch?

KLEINBOEHL: Well, there's essentially just one feature here that you can click. It's called arch peak marker. You click that. And then you can hover with your mouse over the peak of your arch and click in the actual data image. And that will produce a green circle that marks the position of the arch. I think it's a fairly simple workflow that most people will find fairly easy to do.

MARTINEZ: Armin, I could completely see someone just getting lost in this and just doing this for hours on end. How much time should someone spend on this realistically so that they don't maybe let other responsibilities in their life go?

KLEINBOEHL: Oh, I don't know. I think - I want to leave that up to the user.

MARTINEZ: (Laughter).

KLEINBOEHL: I'm amazed about, you know, how much response we've had to this project. We thought, oh, we put, like, an amount of data on that might be completed in, like, two months or so. And it was completed in little more than two weeks. And we had to scramble to put more data on because we had such a great response. So I really want to thank the citizen scientists who have worked on this tool over the last month or so because, you know, the response was really better than anything that we had hoped for.

MARTINEZ: All right. And I guess, I mean, for people that would love to imagine a time when maybe we can be on Mars someday, I mean, are these legitimately some of the first steps toward getting there if we were to ever be able to get there?

KLEINBOEHL: Yeah. I think the information that we provide with these atmospheric investigations is very valuable for getting people to Mars. You would imagine, you know, if you're an astronaut and you're supposed to go out of your habitat, you would like to know what the weather is, right? So ideally, you would have, like, a few spacecraft in orbit that provide measurements that tell you what the weather is and what you can expect when you leave your habitat.

MARTINEZ: That's Armin Kleinboehl, deputy principal investigator of the Mars Climate Sounder at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Armin, thanks a lot.

KLEINBOEHL: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANS ZIMMER'S "CORNFIELD CHASE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.