Multiple Dinosaur Tracks Confirmed at NASA Center

Fossilized nodosaur footprints discovered at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. (NASA/GSFC/Rebecca Roth)

At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, where some of the world’s most advanced research in space technology is being performed on a daily basis, paleontologists have discovered ancient evidence of dinosaurs on the Center’s wooded campus — at least two, possibly a mother and child, crossed that way between 112 and 110 million years ago and left their muddy footprints as proof.

The tracks of two nodosaurs — short, stocky and heavily-armored herbivorous dinosaurs — have been confirmed by dinosaur tracker Ray Stanford and USGS emeritus paleontologist Dr. Robert Weems. The second track is a smaller version of the first.

The first, larger footprint was announced by Stanford on August 17. When Dr. Weems was called in to verify, the smaller print was discovered within the first, evidence that they were made around the same time and leading researchers to suggest it may have been a mother-and-child pair.

Dinosaur tracker Ray Stanford describes the cretaceous-era nodosaur track he found on the Goddard Space Flight Center campus with Dr. Robert Weems, emeritus paleontologist for the USGS who verified his discovery. (NASA/GSFC/Rebecca Roth)

“It looks to be a manus (front foot) print of a much smaller dinosaur than the first one, but it looks to be the same type,” Weems said of the second track. “If the one that came through was a female, it may have had one or more young ones following along. If you’ve seen a dog or cat walking with its young, they kind of sniff around and may not go in the same direction, but they end up in the same place.”

It’s thought that the nodosaurs were moving quickly since the tracks don’t show strong imprints of the animals’ heels. Still, the ruddy Cretaceous-era mud preserved their brief passage well — even as millions of years went by.

“This was a large, armored dinosaur,” Stanford said. “Think of it as a four-footed tank. It was quite heavy, there’s a quite a ridge or push-up here. Subsequently the sand was bound together by iron-oxide or hematite, so it gave us a nice preservation, almost like concrete.”

The next steps will be to have the site analyzed to determine whether further excavation is called for, and possibly to extract and preserve the existing footprints.

“Space scientists may walk along here, and they’re walking exactly where this big, bungling heavy armored dinosaur walked, maybe 110 to 112 million years ago.”

– Ray Stanford

Read more on the GSFC site here.

Scientists Find Clues of Plate Tectonics on Mars

Valles Marineris NASA World Wind map Mars Credit NASA

Caption: Valles Marineris NASA World Wind Map Mars Credit: NASA

Until now, Earth was thought to be the only planet with plate tectonics. But a huge “crack” in Mars’ surface — the massive Valles Marinaris — shows evidence of the movement of huge crustal plates beneath the planet’s surface, meaning Mars may be showing the early stages of plate tectonics. This discovery can perhaps also shed light on how the plate tectonics process began here on Earth.

Valles Marineris is no ordinary crack on the Martian surface. It is the longest and deepest system of canyons in the Solar System. Stretching nearly 2,500 miles, it is nine times longer than Earth’s Grand Canyon.

An Yin, a planetary geologist and UCLA professor of Earth and space sciences, analyzed satellite images from THEMIS (Thermal Emission Imaging System), on board the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, and from the HIRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“When I studied the satellite images from Mars, many of the features looked very much like fault systems I have seen in the Himalayas and Tibet, and in California as well, including the geomorphology,” he said.

The two plates that Yin calls Valles Marineris North and Valles Marineris South are moving approximately 93 miles horizontally relative to each other. By comparison, California’s San Andreas Fault, which is similarly over the intersection of two plates, has moved about twice as much, because Earth is about twice the size of Mars.

Yin believes Mars has no more than two plates whereas Earth has seven major plates and dozens of smaller ones. As Yin puts it “Earth has a very broken ‘egg shell,’ so its surface has many plates; Mars’ is slightly broken and may be on the way to becoming very broken, except its pace is very slow due to its small size and, thus, less thermal energy to drive it. This may be the reason Mars has fewer plates than on Earth.”

Mars also has several long, straight chains of volcanoes, including three that make up the Tharsis Montes, three large shield volcanoes which includes Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the Solar System at 22 km high. These volcanic chains may have formed from the motion of a plate sitting over a “hot spot” in the Martian mantle, in the same way the Hawaiian Islands are thought to have formed here on Earth. Yin also identified a steep cliff similar to cliffs in California’s Death Valley, which are generated by a fault, as well as a very smooth and flat side of a canyon wall which Yin says is also strong evidence of tectonic activity.

Yin also suggests that the fault is shifting occasionally, and may even produce “Marsquakes” every now and again. “I think the fault is probably still active, but not every day. It wakes up every once in a while, over a very long duration — perhaps every million years or more,” he said.

It is not known how far beneath the surface the plates on Mars are located. Yin admits “I don’t quite understand why the plates are moving with such a large magnitude or what the rate of movement is; maybe Mars has a different form of plate tectonics,” Yin said. “The rate is much slower than on Earth.”

“Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics,” Yin added. “It gives us a glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth.”

Yin’s study was published in the August issue of the journal Lithosphere and he also plans to publish a follow-up paper hoping to shed more light on plate tectonics on both Mars and Earth.

Read the abstract.

Find out more at the

What are the Different Types of Volcanoes?

Several volcanoes in Russia, as seen by astronauts on the ISS. Credit: NASA

A volcano is an opening in the Earth’s surface where molten rock can escape from underneath. The Earth’s surface is made up of tectonic plates, which are spreading apart, crunching into each other, or sliding beside one another. Volcanoes are typically found at the fault lines between these plates. There can be active volcanos, which are currently, or have recently erupted. There are also dormant volcanoes, which haven’t erupted recently, and extinct volcanoes, which will never erupt again.

There are 4 major types of volcanoes:

Cinder Cone Volcanoes:

These are the simplest type of volcano. They occur when particles and blobs of lava are ejected from a volcanic vent. The lava is blown violently into the air, and the pieces rain down around the vent. Over time, this builds up a circular or oval-shaped cone, with a bowl-shaped crater at the top. Cinder cone volcanoes rarely grow larger than about 1,000 feet above their surroundings.

Composite Volcanoes:

Composite volcanoes, or stratovolcanoes make up some of the world’s most memorable mountains: Mount Rainier, Mount Fuji, and Mount Cotopaxi, for example. These volcanoes have a conduit system inside them that channels magma from deep within the Earth to the surface. They can have clusters of vents, with lava breaking through walls, or issuing from fissures on the sides of the mountain. With all this material coming out, they can grow thousands of meters tall. As we’ve seen with the famous Mount Saint Helens, composite volcanoes can explode violently.

Shield Volcanoes:

These are large, broad volcanoes that look like shields from above – hence the name. The lava that pours out of shield volcanoes is thin, so it can travel for great distances down the shallow slopes of the volcano. These volcanos build up slowly over time, with hundreds of eruptions, creating many layers. They’re not likely to explode catastrophically. Perhaps the best known shield volcanoes are the ones that make up the Hawaiian Islands, especially Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.

Lava Domes:

Volcanic or lava domes are created by small masses of lava which are too viscous (thick) to flow very far. Unlike shield volcanoes, with low-viscosity lava, the magma from volcanic domes just pile up over and around the vent. The dome grows by expansion of the lava within, and the mountain forms from material spilling off the sides of the growing dome. Lava domes can explode violently, releasing a huge amount of hot rock and ash.

We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how a volcano sparked lightning storms.

Here are more article about volcanoes:

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.