Where on Mars…?!

I have been incredibly remiss in posting these last months thanks to a blogger’s paradox. When there is plenty you want to write about you struggle to find the time to write it! Finally I have come up for air for sufficiently long to update you on where I’ve been! 1) the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2015; 2) the Zooniverse; and 3) Planet Experiment.

EPSC was a joy from beginning to end, from my discovery of the European Space Agency (ESA) lego to sharing the shuttle to the airport with a researcher from Oxford interested in creating their own Citizen Science project for analysing radar data. It transpires that planetary scientists are not only an intelligent bunch but humble with it; I met people for the first time and felt I’d known them all my life. I also grabbed the opportunity to sit with others on the project and tackle problems that ultimately only took five minutes to solve but required us to be in the same place at the same time. Dropbox and Skype can only get you so far with a project like ours! This meant that I worked on Mars in Motion right up until my demo, but the hard work paid off. It was wonderful to see what others are doing with Martian data too, from Where on Mars? and MarsSI. The week was made even more memorable on the Monday with news of saline water on Mars and the structure of the comet 67P.


The famous Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL), which suggest liquid water is active on Mars, on a scarp of the Hellas impact crater basin; RSL are dark streaks that can run hundred of metres down crater walls and canyons when the temperature goes above 23 degrees C, first captured on camera in 2011. The salinity of the liquid has lowered its melting point. Photograph: NASA/Reuters


RSL in the walls of Garni crater. Photograph: NASA/AFP/Getty Images.

In conjunction with the conference, the most amazing array of outreach activities were on offer to the public; in addition to ESA’s astronaut lego they could explore Martian landscapes in 3D with Google Cardboard, find out how much they would weigh on different planets with different gravitational strengths and…. French school children toured this stellar showcase of the solar system all week long. To add to the buzz of the building, the event coincided with the release of The Martian, which I defy anyone to watch and not be inspired. It certainly inspired me to begin formalising ideas for my own outreach activities later in the project.

This leads me nicely onto my long overdue “official” visit to Oxford to meet the Zooniverse team. I did an impromptu double-act with Meg Schwamb of Planet Four fame, for the lunchtime seminar, so that the lucky lot had a whole hour of Martian magic! I only hope that I impressed them as much as they impressed me with the insights they gave me into imminent developments of their Panoptes platform. I daren’t divulge too much but keep your eye out for some very exciting extensions to the models of crowd sourcing to which we have been accustomed. The only clue I can provide towards what is to come is this paper by Phil Marshall, in which volunteers’ classifications train and update a computer algorithm in real time, so that it continuously gets smarter and more competent in the analysis, the ultimate aim of which is to reach the project’s goal much more quickly and efficiently for all concerned. In the very least I know that their experience will be invaluable when we are ready to launch Mars in Motion.

The week after I presented in Oxford, it was my turn to take to the lectern for the lunchtime seminar at the NGI. I have been here six months now so I was overdue my turn to share what exactly on Mars I am doing with the people I pass every day. The range of research going on around me every day, in the same building, has been a constant source of surprise and joy to me and I have been helping to organise a schedule of lunchtime seminars that reflects it. It provided me with the opportunity to, not only share the video I keep up my sleeve but also, recruit for our experiments, for which we were finally ready to begin.

This brings me nicely to my current location. Planet Experiment. I have deliberately not looked at the data yet because they are ongoing and I want to be partial in my presentation of the task to participants and don’t want any confirmation bias in my analysis. For this first experiment we are playing with the presentation of the images in a Martian version of Spot the Difference. You won’t be surprised to hear that we are already planning our second round of experiments to kick off as soon as possible. It feels great to have got them underway now and I’m looking forward to reporting preliminary results to the rest of the team before Christmas.


Spot the difference…on the surface of Mars!

Incidentally I recently spent a lunch hour answering questions from new PhD students about my PhD experience and attended an event to celebrate 40 years of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. Both events inspired an idea for a future blog “Post-PhD” post, but this will come as soon as my corrections are approved, which will be this side of Christmas if I have anything to do with it! December is going to be a busy month, not least because I will be presenting at GRSG at ESA ESRIN, and getting used to the minor change to my life that is home ownership. As 2015 comes to a screeching halt, it’s giving 2016 quite an act to follow.



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