If you’ve ever dreamed of exploring Mars, but are worried about all that pesky radiation exposure and being cramped in a capsule for the two-year flight – or about never coming back – then your dream may be realized with NASA’s “Be a Martian” web site. In the spirit of other citizen scientist collaborations such as Galazy Zoo and Stardust@Home, NASA has created a site that allows you to view and categorize images to help map the Martian surface from the safety of your own home here on Earth.
The Be a Martian site is a collaboration between NASA and Microsoft that uses the tool of crowsourcing to sift through the hundreds of thousands of photos sent back by Mars rovers and orbiters. The format of the site is much like a game, where you complete tasks to earn points and badges.
There are two types of classifying activities to do on the site: count craters and match up images. Counting craters is just like it sounds: you are presented with an image, and place markers on any craters that you see. Counting craters in small regions on the Martian surface will help scientist determine the relative age of these regions – the more craters, the older an area is likely to be.
The image mapping is a bit trickier, though, because you have to match up 2-3 small, but high resolution images onto the background of a larger, much lower resolution image. The user starts in Vallis Marinaris, but can move onto other parts of Mars from there. By helping map the surface, better maps of the surface can be made to help scientists interpret the changing conditions of Mars.
Being a Martian citizen also has some civic responsibilities, too. There is a forum on the site where one can ask questions, vote on questions and make comments to earn “Curiousity Points”. NASA Mars experts will read the questions to see what the virtual Martian community is interested, and will host town hall-type meetings in the future where members can participate.
“We really need the next generation of explorers. And we’re also accomplishing something important for NASA. There’s so much data coming back from Mars. Having a wider crowd look at the data, classify it and help understand its meaning is very important,” Michelle Viotti, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory told BBC News.
Extras are also available on the site, including wallpapers, mission overviews, and videos. You’ll need to have Microsoft’s Silverlight application for the games and videos on the site to work.
So, if you aren’t already completely addicted to Galaxy Zoo or any other citizen scientist site, now’s your chance! Oh, and if you want your Martian name to be Marvin, too bad – I tried, and it’s already been taken!