Seventh Graders Find a Cave on Mars

Jun 17, 2010
Sixteen seventh-grade students at Evergreen Middle School in Cottonwood, Calif., found the Martian pit feature at the center of the superimposed red square in this image while participating in a program that enables students to use the camera on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

(PhysOrg.com) -- California middle school students using the camera on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter have found lava tubes with one pit that appears to be a skylight to a cave.

They went looking for lava tubes on Mars -- and found what may be a hole in the roof of a Martian cave.

The 16 in Dennis Mitchell's 7th-grade science class at Evergreen Middle School in Cottonwood, California, chose to study lava tubes, a common volcanic feature on Earth and Mars. It was their class project for the Mars Student Imaging Program (MSIP), a component of ASU's Mars Education Program, which is run out of the Mars Space Flight Facility on the Tempe campus.

The imaging program involves upper elementary to college students in Mars research by having them develop a geological question about Mars to answer. Then the students actually command a Mars-orbiting camera to take an image to answer their question. Since MSIP began in 2004, more than 50,000 students have participated to varying extents.

"The students developed a research project focused on finding the most common locations of lava tubes on Mars," says Mitchell. "Do they occur most often near the summit of a volcano, on its flanks, or the plains surrounding it?"

To answer the question, the students examined more than 200 images of Mars taken with the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), an instrument on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. Philip Christensen, a Regents' Professor of geological sciences in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, is the instrument's designer and principal investigator. The students chose for their targeted THEMIS image (plus a secondary backup image) areas on Pavonis Mons volcano that had yet to be photographed by THEMIS at highest resolution (18 meters, or 59 feet, per pixel).

On their two targeted images the students found lava tubes, as they had hoped. And on the backup image, they also found a small, round black spot. Many Martian lava tubes are marked by aligned chains of collapse pits, which typically have flat floors and sloping sides. The spot they students found, however, appears to have vertical sides.

Such features made a stir in the news in 2007, when Glen Cushing, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, published a paper showing several Martian examples, which had been located using the heat-sensing capability of THEMIS. He argued that these holes were anomalous as compared to the usual chain pit crater, being smaller and resembling a relatively straight-sided shaft going down into the ground.

Cushing proposed that these anomalous pit craters are "skylights" — places where a small part of the roof of a cave or a lava tube has collapsed, opening the subsurface to the sky. They typically appear cooler than the ground surface by day, but warmer than it by night. This is exactly what would be expected, given that Martian surface temperatures have a large diurnal range, while subsurface temperatures hold fairly even.

"This pit is certainly new to us," Cushing told the students. "And it is only the second one known to be associated with Pavonis Mons." He estimated it to be approximately 190 by 160 meters (620 x 520 feet) wide and 115 meters (380 feet) deep at least.

In addition, he said, the spot appears clear against the background surface of Pavonis Mons. "It sticks out like a sore thumb in THEMIS predawn thermal observations."

The students have submitted their site as a candidate for imaging by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. HiRISE can image the surface at about 30 centimeters (12 inches) per pixel, which may allow a look inside the hole in the ground.

"The Student Imaging Program is certainly one of the greatest educational programs ever developed," says Mitchell. "It gives the students a good understanding of the way research is conducted and how that research can be important for the scientific community. This has been a wonderful experience."

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User comments : 14

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ForFreeMinds
3.7 / 5 (9) Jun 17, 2010
Congratulations are due to the students. I commend them.
trekgeek1
4.8 / 5 (9) Jun 17, 2010
This is what we need in this country. We need children using and learning about technology and space travel in a hands on manner. Actually allowing children to operate a space based camera on an alien planet really strengthens passion for science. This also give future generations an idea of how difficult this currently is, thus creating a generation of Americans who realize how much we need to improve our space program.
RobertKLR
5 / 5 (1) Jun 17, 2010
Those meddling kids again ... arrrrgh!
GaryB
4.5 / 5 (4) Jun 18, 2010
I wonder what you'd get if you just trained kids to look for archeological sites from ariel views and then just had 1000 students crawl Google earth?
sender
4 / 5 (6) Jun 18, 2010
pay the children their wages that are owed, you theiving slavedrivers!
Arkaleus
1 / 5 (1) Jun 18, 2010
I would have asked: "Where are valuable mineral deposits likely to occur on mars, from what we know about martian geological processes?"
CouchP
3.8 / 5 (4) Jun 18, 2010
This is what we need in this country. We need children using and learning about technology and space travel in a hands on manner. Actually allowing children to operate a space based camera on an alien planet really strengthens passion for science. This also give future generations an idea of how difficult this currently is, thus creating a generation of Americans who realize how much we need to improve our space program.


There is an amazing amount of usable data from NASA and others. My son did a science fair experiment using SOHO data, it's really easy to perform basic CME calculations and build a rather good dataset to analyze.

SongDog
3 / 5 (2) Jun 18, 2010
One wonders if it's possible to sense the diurnal wind moving in and out to infer the (supposed) cave volume. Doppler radar or lidar might pick up something if there's an instrument available.
RoboticExplorer
4 / 5 (4) Jun 18, 2010
What an amazing experience for these students. This kind of exposure to space exploration and its technology is priceless in how it can motivate young minds to peruse a career in these fields. With the US lagging so far behind other countries in this respect I only wish every school district had programs such as this available to enhance their math and science curriculum.

Its a sad state of affairs when you ask an average high school student "who is Galileo?" and "who is Lady Gaga?" and they think they are both famous musicians.

If people wonder why we are falling behind is so many fields, they need look no further than the lack of access to resources, technology, and expertise at the public educational level. This article is a positive example of just what can be accomplished given the opportunity.
therob111
4 / 5 (4) Jun 19, 2010
Sorry to rain on everyone's parade. Credit should go to these people, who found the cave in May of 2007. Luckily I found the link bookmarked and still active.
http://www.abovet...4267/pg1
It's not new, it has been found before.
yyz
1.5 / 5 (2) Jun 19, 2010
"It's not new, it has been found before."

Uhh....I can't seem to find one that matches. Which image again?
jbarnhill1
5 / 5 (1) Jun 20, 2010
"Sixteen seventh-grade students at Evergreen Middle School in Cottonwood, Calif., found the Martian pit feature at the center of the superimposed red square"

I'm glad they noted that the square was superimposed, I was beginning to wonder why everyone was freaking out about a hole in the ground when there was a gigantic red square carved out on Mars.
yyz
5 / 5 (2) Jun 20, 2010
@therob111,

You gave a link to a 2007 blog announcing the discovery of seven 'pits' on the surface of Mars( http://www.planet...0000984/ ). Six images are shown (one contains two pits) labeled A-F. None seem to match the pit shown in this post. So...which image again (A-F)?

(Hint: check the coordinates of the 2007 finds against the current find.)
zoneone
5 / 5 (2) Jun 21, 2010
Who says NASA is a waste of money? This is exactly what we need more of in our public schools.
corticalchaos
Jun 22, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.