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Citizen scientists are helping to map Mars’s strange ridge features

Members of the public are helping to map unusual ridge features in the Jezero crater on Mars, near the area where the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter are currently exploring. Thousands of citizen scientists have helped to map out ridge networks that can give clues to how water flowed on Mars billions of years ago, as part of a recently published paper.

Researchers from Arizona State University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory invited the public to help classify data from a number of orbiting Mars instruments, including the NASA Mars Odyssey orbiter’s THEMIS camera and the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter’s CTX and HiRISE instruments. Through the Zooniverse platform, citizen scientists identified a total of 953 polygonal ridge networks in an area covering around 20% of Mars’s surface.

Map of polygonal ridge networks (black dots) identified in mapping area (dashed black outline), covering approximately a fifth of Mars’ total surface area.
Map of polygonal ridge networks (black dots) identified in mapping area (dashed black outline), covering approximately a fifth of Mars’ total surface area. The Mars Perseverance rover landing site is shown in purple. Background: Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter Elevation Map. NASA/JPL/GSFC

“Citizen scientists played an integral role in this research because these features are essentially patterns at the surface, so almost anyone with a computer and internet can help identify these patterns using images of Mars,” one of the authors, Aditya Khuller, said in a statement.

The ridge networks were most often identified in extremely old terrain that was up to 4 billion years old, which is around the time that Mars is thought to have had liquid water flowing on its surface. Similar ridges have been found to have clays in previous research, which is important as clays tend to form in the presence of water. Though many of the ridges are now covered in dust, which makes them hard to analyze, this suggests that they could have formed due to water flowing on or near the surface.

Unusual ridge networks on Mars may provide clues about the history of the Red Planet.
Unusual ridge networks on Mars may provide clues about the history of the Red Planet. NASA/JPL/MSSS/Caltech Murray Lab/Esri

The researchers want to continue inviting the public to help with the mapping work. “We hope to eventually map the entire planet with the help of citizen scientists,” Khuller said. “If we are lucky, the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover might be able to confirm these findings, but the nearest set of ridges is a few kilometers away, so they might only be visited on a potential extended mission.”

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