Planet Jupiter

School leads citizen science effort to study Jupiter's atmosphere

Ramanakumar Sankar, a postdoctoral researcher at the School is leading the latest Zooniverse project, Jovian Vortex Hunter which will allow citizen scientists to help astrophysicists categorize tens of thousands of stunning images taken from the Juno spacecraft.

The planet Jupiter is located more than 467 million miles from Earth and has a starkly different atmosphere made of hydrogen and helium. Even so, Jupiter’s atmosphere contains a wide diversity of clouds of different shapes and sizes, much like our own planet. Learning more about Jupiter’s atmosphere can give us new insight into weather patterns on our own planet and help us discover more about the early beginnings of our solar system.

Jovian Vortex Hunter is part of the Zooniverse platform, which is the world’s largest and most popular people-powered online research platform with more than two million volunteers from around the world. Using only a web browser, these volunteers act as armchair scientists and archivists helping academic research teams with their projects.

Images for this project are from the JunoCam camera on board NASA's Juno spacecraft. Juno was launched in 2011, and reached Jupiter in 2016, and has been collecting data ever since. Juno is in a highly elliptical orbit around Jupiter, coming as close as a few thousand kilometers above the cloud tops during its closest approach. Juno has completed more than 40 orbits around Jupiter collecting gigabytes of imagery from JunoCam. The Jovian Vortex Hunter project has more than 60,000 images from this data set.

In this project, citizen scientists are asked 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 Sankar. “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.”

For those who think they don’t have the expertise or skill to examine spacecraft images of Jupiter, don’t worry. The Jovian Vortex Hunter project has several helpful guides and tutorials on the different types of features in these images and tips on identifying vortices. Sankar said that every image is examined by at least 16 people. The Jovian Vortex Hunter also includes tutorials for citizen scientists.  “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 can more closely examine.”

Sankar said the information they get from the citizen scientists will not only be used to study Jupiter but will also help to write a will also help to write a neural network based classifier, a type of algorithm that could speed future identification.of Jupiter’s atmospheric features by combining computer help with human expertise.

The Jovian Vortex Hunter citizen science project is funded at the University of Minnesota by a NASA grant in partnership with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, IL.

In addition to Sankar, the Jovian Vortex Hunter research team includes Lucy Fortson, a University of Minnesota physics and astronomy professor and co-founder of the Zooniverse platform; Shawn Brueshaber, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) run by CalTech; Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and the PI of the JunoCam instrument; Glenn Orton, the supervisor for JPL’s Planetary and Exoplanetary Atmospheres Group; Chris Lintott, an astronomy professor at Oxford University and co-founder of Zooniverse; and Kameswara Mantha, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with the Zooniverse team.