7/27/2020 Peter Durantine

To Understand Lava Flows on Mars, Researchers Visit New Mexico

Several government and academic researchers, including a Franklin & Marshall College professor and an alumnus, spent time at a volcanic field in New Mexico to understand the composition of extraterrestrial lava flows.

“We know these very similar features occur on Mars, but since we can’t go there very easily, most of the work on the planet is done remotely by rovers in a very limited area,” said F&M Professor of Geosciences Andrew de Wet. “That’s the whole idea of this, to go and study things on Earth that we can access and walk around and take measurements.”

Jake Bleacher ’00, NASA’s  Chief Exploration Scientist of Advanced Exploration Systems, and de Wet were co-authors on a recent paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research’s “Planets” with scientists from the University of Arizona; the University of Hawaii; the University of California, Berkeley; the National Air and Space Museum; NASA; and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

  • Jake Bleacher ’00, NASA’s  Chief Exploration Scientist of Advanced Exploration Systems, between a crevice in the lava flow. Jake Bleacher ’00, NASA’s Chief Exploration Scientist of Advanced Exploration Systems, between a crevice in the lava flow.

“Lava is common throughout the solar system and can provide information about the geologic history of terrestrial planets and moons,” according to their paper, ‘Lava‐Rise Plateaus and Inflation Pits in the McCartys Lava Flow Field, New Mexico: An Analog for Pāhoehoe‐Like Lava Flows on Planetary Surfaces.’ “However, reconstructing information about volcanic eruptions from lava flows requires an understanding of how their shapes change during an eruption.”

At McCartys lava flow, part of the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field in El Malpais National Monument, drones are prohibited so the researchers made observations and took measurements using a kite with a camera. The well-exposed flow is estimated to be 3,000 years old.

“We collected data from above and built these three-dimensional models,” de Wet said.

The flows are incredibly thick, about 20 meters with huge cracks on the surface. Researchers long believed a rapid eruption with a thick, fast flow created them.

“It turns out that is probably not how they formed,” de Wet said. “They formed very slowly, with molten material feeding into the interior part of the flow, like adding air into a balloon. The lava flows inflate from the material so that means these flows are built up over a long period of time.”

An understanding of the lava flows will help when astronauts reaches Mars, he said. They will know whether a lava flow is a good place to land a craft and walk around. Cracks are a danger.

“We think with the McCartys flow it took a few years to form these features, and that’s similar to what’s on Mars,” de Wet said. “We’re trying to get a better understanding of how the planet works.”

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