Page last updated at 20:42 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

How to explore Mars and have fun

Victoria crater (NASA/JPL/UA )
Scientists hope the public's help will have a big impact on research

The US space agency needs your help to explore Mars.

A Nasa website called "Be A Martian" allows users to play games while at the same time sorting through hundreds of thousands of images of the Red Planet.

The number of pictures returned by spacecraft since the 1960s is now so big that scientists cannot hope to study them all by themselves.

The agency believes that by engaging the public in the analysis as well, many more discoveries will be made.

The new citizen-science website went live on Tuesday at

The site is just the latest to use crowdsourcing as a tool to do science.

Players at Be A Martian can earn points in one game by helping Nasa examine and organize the images into a more complete map of the planet.

Another game gets users to count impact craters to help scientists understand better the relative age of rocks on Mars' surface.

Nasa hopes the mix of real data and fun will also inspire the planetary scientists of tomorrow.

"We really need the next generation of explorers," says Michelle Viotti, from the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees Mars missions.

"And we're also accomplishing something important for Nasa. There's so much data coming back from Mars. Having a wider crowd look at the data, classify it and help understand its meaning is very important."

Software giant Microsoft has been a major contributor to the technology powering Be A Martian.

The website was built on the Microsoft Windows Azure Platform, using the company's Silverlight interface and its "Dallas" service to house all the information.

"The beauty of this type of experience is that it not only teaches people about Mars and the work Nasa is doing there, but it also engages a large group of people to help solve real challenges that computers cannot solve by themselves," said Marc Mercuri from Microsoft.

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