Ready, aim, click: Mars imaging team takes your requests

Scientists with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, currently circling the planet Mars, have released the first images suggested by John and Jane Q. Public. The program is designed to bring extra sets of eyes to the image-targeting process.

Artist's rendering of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at Mars. The craft was launched Aug. 12, 2005 and arrived at Mars March 10, 2006. It's HiRISE camera has built a catalog of more than 12,000 images of the red planet. Scientists are using the images to reconstruct the planet's geologic history, trace the history of water on the planet, and provide detailed shots of potential landing sites for future missions.

Scientists with NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter yesterday released the craft's first images of the Martian surface taken at the behest of everyday folks with a keen interest in the red planet.

It's an aspect of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission scientists started in January. It's called HiWish.

So far, only about 1 percent of the Martian surface has gotten the Ansel Adams treatment from the spacecraft's high-resolution camera. From its orbit, which ranges from 200 to 400 kilometers (125 to 250 miles) above the planet, HiRISE can spot objects as small as 1 meter across on the surface.

The HiRISE team has its ever-evolving science agenda, to be sure. But "we appreciate fresh thinking outside the box," notes Alfred McEwen, the lead scientist for HiRISE. Input from the public prompts his team to "look for things we may not have chosen otherwise."

IN PICTURES: NASA's HiRISE camera's public submissions

This isn't the first time scientists with NASA Mars missions have enlisted the public's help. During NASA's Mars Global Surveyor mission, for instance, that orbiter captured more than 1,000 images based on requests that came in from the public. Mars Odyssey has gathered another 500 images based on requests from the public suggestion box.

Ari Espinoza, an outreach coordinator for HiRISE's public-request program, notes that participants so far range from bona fide scientists to a retired school teacher with an abiding fascination with Mars. "We're really viewing this as the people's camera," Mr. Espinoza says.

If you're interested in taking part in setting HiRISE's research agenda, Espinoza -- a self-described HiRISE raconteur -- has a couple of pointers.

1. Check out the program's web site, which shows the sections of the planet people already have requested the team to image. Then, surprise surprise, don't request a repeat. Pick something different.

2. Provide some kind of rationale for your selection. You can find hints by reading other people's proposals. During a phone chat, we were discussing this when I asked about a couple of craters in one of the new images. The craters looked relatively recent. Or at least one could ask if they were. That's the kind of question one could cite as a rationale, he replied.

In Emily Lakdawalla's case, her nominee for a Kodak moment represented a bit of delayed gratification. She is an astronomer who blogs for Planetary Society, based in Pasadena, Calif. In 2001 she published her first and only peer-reviewed journal paper. It focused on a feature, Zephyria Tholus, that looked for all the world like a stratovolcano on Earth. Think Mt. Vesuvius, Mt. Rainier, or Mt. Fuji.

But, she writes in an email exchange, that feature also could have been carved by chance by several impacts. So she sought HiRISE's help in settling the question. The HiRISE team released her requested image as one of the first eight public-picked images.

And? "The image that we got back is very, very, very dusty, making it difficult to see the bedrock features that would answer my scientific question," she writes.

Oh well.

The scientific rationale on the request helps the HiRISE team set imaging priorities.

And, well, it helps weed out the travel photos. You know, the next great "tourist" snapshot of Valles Marinares. Yes, it's the largest canyon in the solar system. It's spectacular in the extreme. But for all the willingness for public participation on HiRiSE, that's no Canon Sure Shot on that orbiter! This is a serious piece of scientific hardware.

Oh yes, the "face" on Mars? Don't ask. Been there, shot that.

IN PICTURES: NASA's HiRISE camera's public submissions

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