Star Stuff: Fly me to the Moon, & Mercury, & Mars

Contributed by
Nov 9, 2017

Want to escape the timeline we are all currently stuck in? Sadly, my TARDIS is in the shop so I can’t physically remove you from this world, BUT I can invite you to fly to the Moon and to soar over the surface of Mars. We can even journey closer to the Sun to explore Mercury, or head the other direction and venture out into the asteroid belt. And if that doesn’t float your boat, we can just stay in low Earth orbit, gazing down at the chaos, but without a hint of all this day to day drudgery.

What is this sorcery you ask? It’s all possible thanks to a citizen science project called CosmoQuest. Founded in 2012, CosmoQuest partners directly with NASA missions to enable people of all ages, backgrounds, nationalities to help analyze data in a straightforward and impactful way. As they state on their website: "CosmoQuest was born out of the singular belief that anyone can contribute to science in a meaningful way if they are given the opportunity and the training." Their current efforts focus on mapping the surfaces of rocky worlds in our Solar System like the Moon, Mercury, Mars, and the asteroid Vesta thanks to data collected by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mercury MESSENGER, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Dawn missions.

Credit: CosmoQuest

To kick off your space travels, all you have to do is create an account and choose your destination. Each project has its own tutorial to get you acquainted with the data and what you will be asked to do with it. Let’s start with our old friend, the Moon. Originally designed as a one year mission, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbit (LRO) has now been orbiting our natural satellite for eight years, and it is still going strong. Ranging from 10-100 miles above the lunar surface, LRO has returned roughly 100 terabytes of data in images alone. The Moon Mappers project aims to map the surface in enough detail that future explorers may benefit from a lunar version of Google Maps. The resolution of the images you’ll explore are so high, it’s even captured the Apollo landing sites in enough detail to separate the landers from the other equipment left behind.

Next let’s head to the heart of the Solar System and the innermost planet, Mercury. NASA’s MESSENGER (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging) mission was in orbit around Mercury from 2011 to 2015, when it was purposefully crashed into its surface. Prior to MESSENGER, the only other spacecraft to visit Mercury was Mariner 10, which did a flyby in 1975, so there is still a lot to learn about this closest rock to the Sun. Smaller than two of the major moons in our Solar System, Mercury was only completely imaged in 2013 and a fair amount of data from MESSENGER is still being processed. However, an early result indicates that cratering on Mercury doesn’t match with our expectations. The majority of craters less than 10km are secondary craters - made by material ejected from an initial impact event that crashes back down on the surface. By participating in Mercury Mappers, you’ll be helping scientists to better understand the impact history of this world.

Composite image of the full surface of Mercury as seen by the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) on MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Moving beyond our home planet in the opposite direction is the red planet that has captured our attention ever since we first took a closer look. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived at Mars in the spring of 2006 to begin looking for evidence suggesting a long-lived presence of water on the surface. One instrument on board, HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), is the largest camera ever flown on a planetary mission. It can spot objects on the surface as small as dinner tables from its average altitude of ~175 miles. While we know Mars is no longer tectonically active, we are still trying to nail down the timeline for when and how it went dormant. Mars Mappers is focused on identifying the youngest surface features that might indicate when water last flowed freely and therefore where life was potentially present.

Ladon Valles as imaged by MRO's HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Last stop on our outbound trip is Vesta, one of the largest objects in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Second in size only to Ceres, roughly 325 miles across, it played host to NASA’s Dawn mission from July 2011 to September 2012. Scientists suspect that Vesta may be one of the last of its kind, i.e., large planetoids from the formation of the Solar System that crashed together to eventually form the terrestrial planets. Surface markings imaged by Dawn hint at ancient asteroid impacts as well short-lived flowing water. Vesta Mappers hopes to shine a light on the asteroid’s complex history by mapping not just craters, but ejecta, displaced boulders, and other unusual features we can’t quite explain yet.

Vesta as imaged by Dawn from a distance of approximately 3,200 miles. Credit: NASA/JPL/MPS/DLR/IDA/Björn Jónsson.

If these rocky worlds aren’t your type of escapism, how about mapping the gorgeous blue marble that we call home? CosmoQuest has just launched a new project called Image Detective that is still in its beta phase. If you loved GeoGuesser, you’ll love Image Detective even more. This project is asking users to sort through over 1.5 million photos taken of Earth by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. For all of you that fell in love with Astronaut Scott Kelly’s instagram feed during his Year in Space, this is the project for you. The goal is to identify surface features and if you’re feeling brave, the actual location on Earth pictured in the image. The end result will be a NASA catalog of Earth from orbit that scientists can make use of in their research.

I don’t know about you, but I could certainly use a distraction from the hits that keep on coming down here on terra firma. Distracting yourself by touring the solar system while at the same time contributing to science seems like the perfect solution. And as a special note on Image Detective, there is a real phenomena among space farer known as the “Overview Effect.” Those lucky enough to have left the surface of our planet often report being struck by how precious and delicate Earth is when viewed from space. Everything from the lack of political borders to the thin shell of atmosphere protecting us from the vacuum of space emphasizes to them that this is the only home we’ve got and it’s worth protecting and fighting for.

So when you get tired of fighting on the ground, head over to CosmoQuest where you can continue to battle the dark side WITH SCIENCE and get a dose of the beauty and awe we are surrounded with on this pale, blue dot of ours. Also Chris Pine singing "Fly Me to the Moon" should be your soundtrack while you do so.