Today’s factismal: Mars has more surface area than all seven continents combined.
If you hang around JPL or the Russian launch center at Baikonur for any length of time, you’ve probably heard them talking about the Great Galactic Ghoul. According to legend, this monster hides out near Mars and lives off of the space probes that it eats. And what a diet it has had! Over the past five decades, the Great Galactic Ghoul has eaten about half of the probes sent to Mars. For example, on August 9, 1973, the USSR sent Mars 7, one of four different probes to Mars that they would launch that summer. All four probes would be eaten by the Great Galactic Ghoul.
Of course, nobody actually thinks that there is a giant space monster out there eating our probes. (Well, maybe a few politicians.) The Great Galactic Ghoul just symbolizes how difficult it is to send a probe to another planet. So why do we keep doing it? In a word: science. By sending rovers and landers and orbiters to Mars, we can learn a lot about the planet. For example, we’ve learned that Mars is not covered with canals, that Mars is covered with ground water, and that there might be life on Mars (in the form of bacteria living deep in the soil).
But Mars is a planet with more surface area to explore than all seven continents combined. Thus far we’ve explored that enormous area with seven landers and four rovers supplemented with ten orbiters. That’s like saying that we’ve explored Earth by driving half-way from Washington DC to New York City while stopping at the Chicago, Albuquerque, and Moscow airports. Needless to say, there’s a lot left to explore.
And that’s where you come in. It turns out that one of the most important parts of planning a mission for a lander or rover is deciding where it should land. And in order to that the scientists need to look at every image of Mars’ surface taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO for short). But there are a lot of images to sort through. The MRO has three cameras and has been in orbit for a decade now; all told, it has taken more than 250,000 pictures of Mars’ surface. So the scientists need ordinary folks (that’s you) to look through the backlog of pictures and help them decide what they are looking at. Is it sand dunes? Is it flat plains? It is valleys? Or mountains? To take part, head over to Planet Four – just mind the Great Galactic Ghoul!