MAPPER is an online activity that enables members of the general public to contribute real science to NASA's Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP). Contributions to MAPPER help the PLRP science team characterize microbialites -- examples of some of the earliest forms of life on Earth -- which can be found in Pavilion and Kelly Lakes in British Columbia, Canada.
Studying microbialites is important to astrobiology since they're an ancient form of life capable of thriving in extreme environments. This means that the better microbialites are understood here on Earth (i.e. where and how they grow, how factors like depth, light, and temperature impact development, etc), the better scientists can pin-point where to search for specific signs of microbial life on other planets.
The PLRP team makes use of Nuytco Research Ltd's DeepWorker submersibles to explore and document microbialites and other features found in Pavilion and Kelly Lakes. To investigate microbialite formations in detail, terabytes of photos and HD video of the lake bottom are recorded by PLRP's DeepWorker sub pilots. This data must be analyzed to determine what types of features can be found in different parts of the lake. Ultimately, a detailed and interactive map will be generated to help answer questions like "how does microbialite texture and size vary with depth?" and "why do microbialites grow in certain parts of the lake but not in others?". But before a map can be generated to address these questions, all the data must be analyzed.
To fully characterize features found throughout both lakes, still images were extracted from the DeepWorker video every 6 seconds. If one were to print out all of these images, the resulting stack would be 'deeper' than the deepest part of Pavilion Lake (65m). Complicating the analysis of these images is the fact that every frame tends to feature low contrast, variable lighting conditions, and a large variety of features with variable shapes and sizes. All of these factors makes it prohibitively difficult to analyze the images using automated computer-based techniques. Therefore, each photo must be tagged by hand, one-by-one. To facilitate production of the map, each image is geo-referenced (latitude, longitude and depth) so that specific features can be tied to specific geographic locations.
Despite its size, the PLRP simply didn't have the resources to fully complete this analysis on its own. Modern Science began development of the Morphology Analysis Project for Participatory Exploration and Research (MAPPER) in 2010 to manage and streamline the photo tagging process for PLRP's internal microbialite morphology team. Based on the success of this initial trial, MAPPER was revamped for the PLRP 2011 field season and has been available to the public since September of that year, enabling anyone to work side-by-side with NASA scientists as members of PLRP's Remote Science Team.
The data that gets submitted to MAPPER will ultimately form the basis of an online, interactive, queryable map that will be available for use by the PLRP science team and by the general public. The intent is to develop a system that will help answer questions about where specific features with specific characteristics can be found in the lakes. The map will provide a means to test hypotheses about features in the lake with unprecedented speed and accuracy, and will be completely based on data submitted by the general public.
- Total number of contributors: 4,600+
- Total photos tagged: 1,114,000+
- Total tags: 1,482,000+
- Total person-hours spent tagging photos: 2,200+ (~3 person-months)