Mars secrets unlocked at Craters of the Moon monument

Mars secrets unlocked at Craters of the Moon monument
Volcanic bombs at Craters of the Moon National Monument. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
POCATELLO, Idaho (AP) — There are enough clues about the potential surface of Mars at Craters of the Moon National Monument that NASA is investing $500,000 with Idaho State University to help uncover them.

"We're trying to understand the textures," said volcanologist Shannon Kobs-Nawotniak.

When you're talking about textures in terms of the micro-scale topography of 618 square miles of lava flows formed between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago, that's no small feat.

Kobs-Nawotniak is heading up a team of researchers at ISU's Department of Geosciences to begin the task of breaking down historic events at the massive and once active volcanic field to have an understanding of exactly how eruptions occurred at Craters thousands of years ago.

Currently, the ISU team is focusing on King's Bowl outside the monument. Kobs-Nawotniak said specialized equipment is creating a micro-topography of the area outside the monument boundary at King's Bowl and Wapi with the aid of centimeter scale GPS.

"We can use the data to understand how much water had to interact to cause the explosions," she said about the exact formations surrounding the volcanic cone.

With the help of graduate and undergraduate students, data will be gathered over the next several months and then it will be analyzed by ISU's super computers to create a precise understanding of the variations in texture caused by the eruption and subsequent erosion. It will essentially create a timeline of how the formations progressed.

The extensive volcanic activity in the Great Rift and Craters of the Moon area occurred when the Yellowstone Hotspot existed below the crust at that location before shifting further to the east. And future volcanic activity is likely at Craters.

According to the National Park Service, the next event will involve about 4.2 cubic kilometers of lava without much explosion.

Kobs-Nawotniak is more interested in determining the exact textural differences in areas that ceased to have any volcanic activity centuries ago. And because of the fact these flows are relatively young in geological time, they make excellent areas to study.

"We have a lot of lavas that haven't eroded much," Kobs-Nawotniak told the Idaho State Journal (http://bit.ly/1lj59eD).

Many of the techniques and equipment used by ISU during the study have a connection to NASA's FINESSE project, which stands for Fast Infrared Exoplanet Spectroscopy Survey Explorer. Part of that project is devoted to understanding the formation, evolution and architectures of exoplanetary systems.

"We're using these (the data) as analogous for Mars," Kobs-Nawotniak said.

To create that data, crews will be surveying blocks of lava more than 40 meters in size. And they will examine the vesiculation, or degree of bubbling that occurred, in samples to help piece the picture together.

Techniques honed in the process may lead to other uses such as examining leaf patterns and textures in plants to evaluate crop health or understanding the wear and tear on structures in urban settings, according to Kobs-Nawotniak.

However, the main enthusiasm is for the volcanoes themselves and the ISU assistant professor said that's what drew her to Idaho from a research lab in Buffalo, New York, where she had worked after completing her doctoral work at the State University of New York at Buffalo and doing a year of field work in Mexico City.

"Volcanoes are just plain cool," Kobs-Nawotniak said.

Once the field work is done and the data has been analyzed by the super computers at ISU, Kobs-Nawotniak will present the findings at the December conference of the American Geological Union in San Francisco.

"I think we're going to get some real cool stuff out of this," she said.