Ziggy played guitar
Jamming good with Weird and Gilly,
And the spiders from Mars
So where were the spiders?
At the south pole of the Red Planet, according to photographs released by the University of Arizona this week.
“As part of the Planet Four citizen science effort, volunteers searched Context Camera images for possible new locations on Mars with “spiders,” or features with radial troughs from which fans emanate in the springtime. We planned this HiRISE image over one such location, to verify that they are spiders. There are thousands of them in this image!”
Let’s identify all of the players in this discovery. HiRISE is the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, the “most powerful camera ever sent to another planet” which entered Martian orbit in 2006 onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It was built under the direction of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, which now manages it for NASA under the direction of Alfred McEwen. a planetary geologist and director of the Planetary Image Research Laboratory (PIRL) at the university. Planet Four is a citizen science project made up of volunteers who help planetary scientists study the images from Mars. Their goal is to find interesting features and anomalies to help the scientists plan future photographs.
Then there’s the thousands of spiders.
As you have probably guessed by now (and of you haven’t, you may want to reconsider that application to try out for Jeopardy!), the “spiders” in the images look like Martian arachnids but are actually “features with radial troughs from which fans emanate in the springtime.” “Spiders” is a much easier shorthand for busy NASA scientists to describe these araneiforms, which are created when Martian ice is warmed from below, causing carbon dioxide gas to form, building up pressure which eventually allows it to jet through the ice, creating a hole resembling a spider’s body and spewing dust that is blown by the wind and settles into streaks resembling the legs of spiders – particularly the daddy long-legs type (Pholcidae) … although the formations look more like spiders that have met the bottom of a shoe or the swinging end of a rolled-up magazine.
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all.
Yes, I know that’s from the Beatles, not Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but that’s what the citizen scientists at Planet Four are doing, and it appears this photograph release from the HiRise folks at the University of Arizona is both a salute and a call for more help, since the spiders were first discovered in 2106 and, despite there being thousands of volunteers, they need more.
“There are far too many images for a group of scientists to get through alone and computers are just no good at detecting the features we are trying to mark. The human mind is far superior at analyzing images with the complexity of the Martian surface! Your markings will be collected together with the markings made by other volunteers on that same image. Taking an average of these markings, we will produce an extremely reliable map of the ‘fan,’ and ‘blotch’ features on the surface of Mars and the first large scale measurement of wind on the planet!”
Whether you’re a fan of David Bowie or not, helping find theses spiders on Mars seems like a noble and worthwhile cause, even if you don’t have a beer light to guide you.