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Amateur Scientists Are Finding 'Spiders' on Mars

NASA's 'Project Four' lets anyone with an internet connection look for spider-like frozen carbon dioxide features.

If staring at the surface of our future backup planet sounds like your idea of a party, you're not alone. Ten thousand volunteers from around the world examined images from the Context Camera on NASA's currently-orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, helping scientists do their homework in studying Mars' climate and topography.

Meg Schwamb, Planetary Scientist at Gemini Observatory, presented results from the first year of the study, called "Planet Four: Terrain." The highlight of the results: spiders on Mars.


Or at least, something less sci-fi than actual spiders. Actual spiders would be a horrifying discovery.

These are erosional features called "araneiforms," made when the ground is covered by sheets of frozen carbon dioxide, aka "dry ice," and then thaws in the spring. The trapped carbon dioxide burst out through a fissure or vent, carving out channels and throwing dust and sand. The result is a formation that looks kind of like spider legs.

Tracking how these spiders form helps scientists understand wind patterns on the planet. Using the data collected from the project, which looks at mid-resolution slices of the surface, they've identified 20 regions to investigate further in higher resolution.

There is no criteria to volunteer for the project, and no application process for becoming a "citizen scientist," HiRISE Deputy Principal Investigator Candice Hansen told Motherboard via email. All you have to do is open the Planet Four project site, choose whether you want to measure fans and interesting features on the surface or identify types of terrain, and watch a short tutorial. "It's really that easy."

You also have the option of posting your findings to a message board, where fellow armchair Martians and scientists can discuss. So far, 135,921 participants around the world have classified 5,058,698 MRO images.

The project is still running: Go forth and do some science.

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