Calling All Citizens: Become A Jovian Vortex Hunter

·4 min read
Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/SwRI/Ramanakumar Sankar
Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/SwRI/Ramanakumar Sankar
  • A new citizen science project opens thousands of images taken from the Juno spacecraft for volunteers to review.

  • The goal of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities project is to learn more about the atmosphere on Jupiter.

  • The Jovian Vortex Hunter program trains any interested volunteers to spot differences in cloud composition—including clouds with water.

Attention Earthlings: You don’t need an astronomy degree to become a Jovian Vortex Hunter.

In fact, scientists need your help, and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities has made it simple to gain access to thousands of images taken from NASA’s Juno spacecraft. You can then sift through the images to help researchers classify Jupiter’s atmospheric features.

It’s all part of a new citizen science project, led by the university with support from NASA. All you need is access to the internet, and the time to go through a simple training. The program may even enable the pros to write an algorithm that can speed up future identification of Jupiter’s atmospheric features. So consider this time well spent.

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Jupiter is more than 467 million miles from Earth, with a hydrogen and helium atmosphere radically different from what we know on our own rocky planet. The gas giant has a healthy diversity of clouds of varying shapes and sizes, whose atmospheric qualities can provide insights about weather patterns on multiple planets throughout the solar system, including Earth.

The Jovian Vortex Hunter program, part of the citizen science effort on the Zooniverse platform, offers up images from the JunoCam onboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which launched in 2011 and reached Jupiter in 2016. It’s been gathering data and orbiting Jupiter ever since, and now it has more than 60,000 images to share, too many for scientists to sift through on their own.

Minnesota scientists want help identifying atmospheric vortices—clouds with a round or elliptical shape like hurricanes. These are part of a larger physics investigation. Focusing on the round shapes of vortices helps researchers understand the different physics behind cyclones and anti-cyclones (which flow in the reverse direction of regular cyclones). It can also lead to a better understanding of what leads to atmospheric diversity.

“There are so many images that it would take several years for our small team to examine all of them,” Ramanakumar Sankar, University of Minnesota School of Physics and Astronomy researcher and project lead, says in a news release. “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.”

Don’t have a background as an astrophysicist? Yeah, the Jovian Vortex Hunter program doesn’t expect you to have those kinds of credentials. Super-handy guides on the project’s site, and tutorials that even a non-scientist can understand, provide plenty of tips and examples of vortex identification. At least 16 people will see each image, so if you aren’t perfect, that’s okay too.

“If one person is having trouble categorizing an image, maybe others will too,” Sankar says. “That might indicate that we have found something new or unique that we more closely examine.”

Minnesota eases you in gently. You can learn that clouds on Jupiter are made of chemicals other than water. They can be several thousand miles in size, their forms created from powerful storms 30 miles high and hundreds of miles across. The types of clouds on Jupiter are highly dependent on the chemical that forms them, with the three main cloud layers coming from ammonia (the top layer), ammonium hydrosulfide (a stinky middle layer), and water (a bottom layer). To understand how the clouds form, researchers need to look at the diversity of the cloud features in the Jovian atmosphere and create a catalogue of them.

The actual volunteer work consists of three workflows, which aren’t all available all the time. In the first, you’ll identify whether a given image has a vortex or turbulent structure. In the second workflow, you can circle the vortex and annotate the vortices and turbulent filaments. The third workflow has you identify the direction of rotation to determine whether they are cyclonic or anti-cyclonic.

So start hunting Jovian vortices. No experience needed.

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