Sad Times…

As people might be able to tell from the title of this blog, I was a big fan of a certain David Bowie.

Due to my research area, I was able to do an (extremely small and insignificant) tribute to the man, through the title of my latest conference talk….

J. Sprinks, S. Bamford, R. Houghton, J. Morley (2016). Ground Control to Major Tom (Dick & Harry)… Using Citizen Scientists to Age the Surface of Mars13th Early Career Planetary Scientists’ Meeting, Jan 2016, Leicester, UK

Not a lot, but something.




The joys of multi-discipline research…

As a student (or past student – not clear on this point) of the Horizon CDT – I have been made fully aware that my research is to cover, or at least involve, many disciplines. As such, I have borrowed a little bit from here, a little bit from there to carry out my PhD studies.

It therefore comes as no surprise that when disseminating my findings, it is apparent that there are many different routes and areas I can choose. Normally, this has been the source of indecision, wondering which conference of journal to write up this study for, and which the next, or maybe multiple differing write-ups with a different focus etc…..

However, at the beginning of October, I experienced one of the benefits of this range of disciplines, by attending two very different conferences ‘back-to-back’. In doing this I could approach each of the disciplines, and consider some of the issues raised, from a different perspective – perhaps in a way that might actually end up in some research happening further down the line…

First up was the European Planetary Science Congress, held in Nantes, France. This was a large affair, with many talks and workshops covering a range of topics around basically every object in the Solar System and beyond. I was there as part of the project, where we had a workshop demonstrating some of our processes and software. An added bonus was the public display space set up in the venue foyer, where models of rovers and planets were displayed, 3D movies were shown and there was even lego to play with!


Nantes Tourism Office seems to be sponsored by Apple…

I left the conference with the notion that there is a lot of potential for citizen science, with many research areas and directions involving large-scale data analysis existing that could benefit from the CitSci approach, let alone the potential this has in connecting with the public.

The day after returning from France I was boarding a train to London to attend CHIPLAY 2015. As the name suggests, the focus is around Human-Computer Interaction in terms of games and gamification. Although not the focus of my current research, I was there to give a talk regarding some of the considerations that might be prevalent regarding the gamification of Citizen Science platforms, and what the impact might be.

The audience for my talk was varied, from artists to psychologists and a mix in between, and as such there was a range of thought-provoking feedback that I would probably not have benefitted from with a ‘normal’ CitSci audience.


Me giving my talk….

The issues regarding ethics, contribution, ‘fun’,  and competition vs. collaboration have furthered my interest in the area, specifically around perhaps mobile CitSci where I think there is still a lot to learn (and play around with!)

Anyway – in short, working across many disciplines while sometimes a bind, also has its plus points….

Cheers and gone.


‘Mars in Motion’

Hello people

We seek participants to help test a new Citizen Science project, ‘Mars in Motion’, being developed by researchers here in Nottingham. For a maximum of one hour of your time, you will get the chance to see the new project before it goes ‘live’, with new tools and imagery of the Martian surface, yet to be analysed! Your feedback will help shape the project’s next phase and design, ready for its launch in 2016. You will also receive £5 Amazon voucher as compensation for your time on completion of the study.

Please contact or for more information, and book your journey to Mars (departing from Room A20 in the Nottingham Geospatial Building) here:

The Voice of the People…

I’m currently writing up my various studies for my PhD thesis, and in the process have been reviewing some of the comments volunteers’ of the Zooniverse’s Planet Four project have given in terms of what they think of the site.

At a point of procrastination, I put together a word cloud of these responses:

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 12.07.48

You’ll see the most prevalent words are things like ‘image’ and ‘fans’ which is not surprising considering the aims of the project. Other perhaps more interesting themes include ‘zoom’, where people have indicated they would love a zoom tool to explore the imagery in more detail, and ‘feedback’ where people have told us about how they enjoy communicating with the science team involved and learning what their work is contributing towards.

Anyway, back to the writing….


Remote Sensing Missions to Mars…..

Remote Sensing Missions to Mars

Since Mariner 9’s pioneering first mission to survey the surface of Mars, several have followed with more advanced equipment able to unveil more detail. This was in a bid to better understand the underlying processes that formed the features of the red planet, including aeolian structures such as sand dunes.

Mariner 9 Mission

Launched in 1971, the Mariner 9 mission had two primary objectives. Firstly, to map 70% of the Martian surface (originally the objective of the failed Mariner 8 mission) and to study temporal changes in the Martian atmosphere and surface. In terms of mapping, the mission exceeded expectations, managing to capture images of almost 100% of the surface. This revealed aeolian features and also large canyons, massive volcanoes and ancient riverbeds.

Despite this success, Mariner 9’s wide and narrow angle telescope cameras could only capture so much detail. The images created had at best a resolution of 1km, and with 5% of the surface this accuracy reduces to 100km. Although this is perfectly adequate to discover large geological features and entire aeolian systems, it is not detailed enough to study dunes in any great depth.

The Viking Missions

NASA’s Viking Mission to Mars was composed of two spacecraft, Viking 1 and Viking 2, each consisting of an Orbiter and a lander. The mission objectives were to capture high-resolution images of the Martian surface, characterise the structure of the atmosphere and surface, and finally to search for signs of life. Launched in 1975, Viking 1 and 2 Orbiter spacecraft orbited Mars at a distance of 300km above the surface for 1400 and 700 rotations respectively, returning images of the entire surface of Mars with a resolution of 150 to 300m. At selected points of interest, this resolution was improved to an impressive 8m.


Viking Orbiter Image

The results from Viking gave us the most complete view of the Martian surface to date. The Orbiter images confirmed the existence of volcanoes’, canyons and aeolian features as well as discovering large cratered regions and even evidence of surface water once existing. It meant that these features could be studied in greater detail, and specific regions of sand dunes and sand dune types were discovered.

Mars Global Surveyor (MGS)

Launched in 1996, the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft was NASA’s first mission to Mars in 20 years. It is still the longest serving mission to date, successfully observing the surface for over nine years until November 2006. It was designed to circle in a polar orbit around the planet (travelling over one pole to the other) twelve times a day collecting images from a height of 400km.


MOC Image

To help achieve this, the surveyor spacecraft was fitted with some of the most advanced instrumentation ever sent into space. Part of this payload was the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC). This camera had two functions; firstly to take a daily wide-angle image of Mars, similar to the weather photographs seen of Earth, in order to study the climate, and secondly to take narrow-angle images to better understand the geological features.The aim of the mission was to contribute to the four main goals of Martian exploration at the time: determine whether life ever existed on Mars, characterise the climate of Mars, characterise the geology of Mars and prepare for human exploration.

As with the previous two Martian missions, the Global Surveyor was a great success. The landmark discovery was to be the existence of gullies and debris flow features, suggesting that there could be current sources of liquid water on or near the surface of the planet. This wasn’t to be its only achievement however, as it returned images of the surface down to a resolution of 0.5m. The most detailed so far, they provided new information about the physical nature of the windblown material on the Martian surface and showed that the pre-MGS view was much too simple. In addition to bright dust and dark sand, MOC images show evidence of bright sediment that can be transported by saltation (e.g., sand) and dark material that can be transported in suspension.

Mars Odyssey Mission

Part of NASA’s ongoing Mars Exploration Program, the Mars Odyssey spacecraft launched in 2001, and is still observing the planet to this day. As with MGS, its aim again is to contribute to the four main goals of exploration, and to do this five mission objectives have been derived: to globally map the elemental composition of the surface, determine the abundance of hydrogen, to acquire high spatial and spectral resolution images of mineralogy, provide information on the morphology of the surface and to characterise the radiation risk to human explorers.

The Odyssey spacecraft was fitted with three main instruments to help achieve its targets. THEMIS (Thermal Emission Imaging System) is a camera used to identify the mineralogy of the planet, by studying the different heat radiation properties present. GRS (Gamma Ray Spectrometer) for determining the presence of 20 chemical elements on the surface including hydrogen, and finally MARIE (Mars Radiation Environment Experiment) for studying the levels of radiation present.



Although at first glance none of these instruments seem suitable for the study of aeolian features such as sand dunes, the THEMIS camera also surveys the surface through the visible spectrum. The resulting images have a resolution of 18m, and to date the camera has taken over 15,000 20x20km shots. This resolution nicely ‘fills the gap’ between the large-scale images of the Mariner and Viking missions and the very-high resolution images of the MGS instrumentation.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)

Launched from Cape Canaveral in 2005, the Reconnaissance Orbiter’s main objective is to search for evidence that water persisted on the surface for a length of time. While previous missions have shown that water flowed across the surface, it remains a mystery whether water ever existed long enough to support life.

The MRO spacecraft is one of the most comprehensive missions ever sent to Mars, with a payload of many different types of instrumentation. As well as the numerous spectrometers, radiometers, radars and engineering instruments on board, three cameras have been included to fulfil a variety of objectives. MARCI (Mars Colour Imager) takes large-scale images of the planets atmosphere in order to study clouds and weather patterns. Two other cameras, HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) and CTX (Context Camera), are able to take images of a much more suitable resolution to study aeolian features in detail.


HiRISE Image of Sand Dunes on Mars

HiRISE, as the name suggests, takes ultra-high resolution images of the Martian surface in order to reveal details of the geologic structure of canyons, craters and aeolian features. Able to produce results at a 0.5m resolution, it has so far returned some of the most detailed and striking images of the Martian surface ever captured.

CTX was designed to be used in conjunction with HiRISE, providing wide-area views of the areas being studied in order to provide a context for the high-resolution analysis of key areas of the surface. Although predominantly an auxiliary instrument, CTX produces good quality images in its own right, and has currently returned data for over 50% of the planet at a resolution of 6m. Although not matching the detail of HiRISE, they still can still be used to study sand dunes in detail while having a much-improved field of view.

If you have any other questions regarding some of the things you have spotted on Planet Four: Craters, please feel free to ask on Talk, and in the mean time please keep marking on!

The Cerberus Fossae


The focus of this post will be on the area of the Martian surface that Planet Four: Craters volunteers have been marking craters on, the Cerberus Fossae.

The Cerberus Fossae is a set of west-north-west trending and almost parallel fissures or fractures that cut across the Cerberus plains on Mars. Evidence suggests that the fissures have been formed by faults that pulled the crust apart in the Cerberus region (9°N, 197°W).

Ripples seen at the bottom of the fault are sand blown by the wind. The underlying cause for the faulting was believed to be magma pressure related to the formation of the Elysium volcanic field, located to the northwest. The faults pass through pre-existing features such as hills, indicating that they are a young feature by the standards of those found on the surface.

In fact, this area of Mars has been identified as having the youngest volcanic plains on Mars. Early crater-counting efforts have suggested that the youngest lava surfaces in the area are less than 10 million years old. This is why it is of such interest to future missions to Mars, as a location where seismic activity might still be happening. To help predict the amount of seismic activity to expect, we need your crater markings to make a more accurate estimate of the age of the region.

If you have any other questions regarding some of the things you have spotted on Planet Four: Craters, please feel free to ask on Talk, and in the mean time please keep marking on!