NASA wants your help classifying vortices on Jupiter

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As part of its Citizen Science Projects initiative, NASA and the University of Minnesota are teaming up and asking for volunteers to help identify clouds on Jupiter.

Interested citizen scientists will help astrophysicists categorize tens of thousands of images of Jupiter captured by the Juno spacecraft. It’s far from the first time we’ve heard about NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Earlier this year, it made its 39th fly-by of Jupiter and captured a stunning image of Jupiter and two of its moons, Io and Europa. Last November, NASA published the first 3D view of Jupiter’s complicated atmosphere. The atmosphere is the primary concern of the new project.

‘An image of the 22nd orbit of the Juno spacecraft around Jupiter shows the region close to the north pole of the planet. There is a huge diversity in the colors and shapes of these vortices (hurricane-like storms). Scientists need to create a catalog of these storms in order to understand how they form.’

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/SwRI/Ramanakumar Sankar.

Jupiter is around 7.3M km (4.53M miles) from Earth, so it’s no surprise that its atmosphere is very different from ours. The atmosphere is comprised primarily of hydrogen and helium. Something Earth and Jupiter have in common is a wide range of cloud types and sizes. It’s believed that learning more about Jupiter’s atmosphere may shed important light on Earth’s weather patterns and perhaps even help us learn more about the early days of our solar system.

The project, Jovian Vortex Hunter, relies upon citizen scientists to identify atmospheric vortices, ‘which are clouds that have a round or elliptical shape like hurricanes. Scientists are particularly interested in the physics behind why these atmospheric features come in different shapes and sizes.’

‘There are so many images that it would take several years for our small team to examine all of them,’ said physics and astronomy postdoctoral researcher Ramanakumar Sankar, who is leading the Jovian Vortex Hunter project. ‘We need help from the public to identify which images have vortices, where they are and how they appear. With the catalog of features (particularly vortices) in place, we can study the physics behind how these features form, and how they are related to the structure of the atmosphere, particularly below the clouds, where we cannot directly observe them.’

The Jovian Vortex Hunter project asks volunteers to identify different types of atmospheric vortices on Jupiter. The website includes step-by-step tutorials to help you.

If you’re a bit unsure about helping, don’t worry, as there are resources to help you out. Further, you aren’t alone. At least 16 people will examine each image, and the site offers tips to help you. The information provided by citizen scientists will save astrophysicists a lot of time, plus the information will be used to write a computer algorithm to speed up future investigations.

‘Citizen scientist Tanya Oleksuik created this color-enhanced image using data from the JunoCam camera…At the time, the spacecraft was about 31,000 mi (about 50,000 km) from the planet’s cloud tops, at a latitude of about 50° South.’

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS. Click to enlarge.

If you struggle with identification, not only are you probably not the only one, it may mean there’s something important for the experts to check out. ‘If one person is having trouble categorizing an image, maybe others will, too,’ Sankar said. ‘That might indicate that we have found something new or unique that we more closely examine.’

The project is nearly halfway complete and more than 800 volunteers are already at work. If you’d like to join in, click here.

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