Best Class Project Ever: 7th Graders Find a Cave on Mars

by Nancy Atkinson on June 23, 2010

Sixteen seventh-graders at Evergreen Middle School in Cottonwood, Calif., found the Martian pit feature at the center of the superimposed red square in this image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Tip number one on “How to impress your classmates:” Find a mysterious cave on Mars. A group of 16 seventh-graders at Evergreen Middle School in Cottonwood, California, USA found a dark pit that appears to be an opening to a cave on Mars. Dennis Mitchell’s science class were examining Martian lava tubes as their project in the Mars Student Imaging Program offered by NASA and Arizona State University, which takes advantage of the huge database of images taken by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. The students found the skylight pit on the slope of an equatorial volcano named Pavonis Mons, and it appears to be an entrance to an underground lava tube. Similar ‘cave skylight’ features have been found elsewhere on Mars, but this is the first seen on this volcano.

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

Mitchell said he and his students have been surprised how much interest there has been nation-wide in their discovery. “They were kind of shocked about the interest, and I think that they are just now starting to realize that they made a pretty neat discovery.”

The imaging program allows students in upper elementary grades through to college to participate in Mars research by having them develop a geological question to answer, and then directing the teams for the Mars-orbiting camera to take an image to answer their question. Since MSIP began in 2004, more than 50,000 students have participated.

Now, because of this find, the HiRISE high resolution camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will take follow-up images of the pit to provide a better look at the object. HiRISE can image the surface at about 30 centimeters (12 inches) per pixel, which may allow a look inside the hole in the ground. This is part of the HiWISH program, where the public can submit suggestions to the science team for locations on Mars to the camera to image.

“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,” Mitchell said.”

“Yeah it was a lot of fun because it wasn’t like any other science that we did, because we actually got to interact with real scientists instead of just people out of the book and stuff,” said 13-year-old Kody Rulofson, one of the students in Mitchell’s class.

Kody’s mother, Doni Rulofson said Kody and his twin brother Chase, also in the class, are inspired by the experience they had finding the cave. “They’re excited. They’re just beyond belief, they’re like, ‘we knew it was something really cool but we had no idea it was this much of an interest to NASA.'”

Odyssey has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2001, returning data and images of the Martian surface and providing relay communications service for Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Find out more about Odyssey here.

MRO has been in orbit since 2006, and has also amassed a huge database of images, which can be seen here.

Source: NASA


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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