Citizen scientists: Help find life on Mars

By | October 3, 2011
Image: Kelly Lake

Interested in helping NASA scientists pinpoint where to look for signs of life on Mars?

If so, you can join a new citizen science website called MAPPER, launched in conjunction with the Pavilion Lake Research Project's 2011 field season.

How can the MAPPER and Pavilion Lake Research projects help scientists look for off-Earth life?

Since 2008, the Pavilion Lake Research Project has used DeepWorker submersible vehicles to investigate the underwater environment of two lakes in Canada (Pavilion and Kelly). With the MAPPER project, citizen scientists can work with NASA scientists and explore the lake bottoms from the view of a DeepWorker pilot.

The project team's main area of focus are freshwater carbonate formations known as microbialites. By studying microbialites that thrive in Pavilion and Kelly Lake, the scientists will gain a better understanding of how the formations develop. Through a greater understanding of the carbonate formations, the team believes they will gain deeper insights into where signs of life may be found on Mars and beyond.

To investigate the formations in detail, video footage and photos of the lake bottom are recorded by DeepWorker sub pilots. The data requires analysis in order to determine what types of features can be found in different parts of the lake. Analyzing the data allows the team to answer questions like these: How do microbialite texture and size vary with depth? Why do microbialites grow in certain parts of the lake but not in others?

The amount of data to analyze is staggering — if each image taken were to be printed, the stack would be taller than the depth of Pavilion Lake (over 60 meters, or 200 feet). If each image were reviewed one-by-one, the project team members would never be able to complete their work. Distributing the work to many volunteers across the Internet solves the problem.

The MAPPER effort — which stands for “Morphology Analysis Project for Participatory Exploration and Research” — has been opened to the general public for the PLRP 2011 field season. Anyone can use MAPPER to explore Pavilion Lake and Kelly Lake as full-fledged members of PLRP's Remote Science Team. …

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