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Kites over Kilauea aid Arizona scientists studying Martian geology

  • CHRISTOPHER HAMILTON
    This is the kite's perspective of the December 1974 flow showing the platy surface of the lava, "bathtub ring," and drain
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The hardened remains of a 1974 lava flow at Kilauea Volcano are helping University of Arizona scientists better understand why the surface of Mars looks the way it does.

A team from the university’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory used kites outfitted with off-the-shelf cameras, GPS and orientation sensors to capture aerial images of the flow, which it then converts into detailed 3D digital terrain models using parallel computing and software algorithms.

The scientists compare these models against images of the surface of Mars taken with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“The idea is to understand places we can’t go by analyzing places we can go,” said principal investigator Christopher Hamilton in a release March 14.

Hamilton said that developing diagnostics to recognize the processes that result in the formation of certain features of the 1974 flow has helped the team understand how similar features on the Martian surface may have developed.

The relatively young flow area at Kilauea is well suited for the scientists’ purposes.

In once instance, Hamilton’s team was able to use what it learned from the Kilauea flow to correct a likely misconception about geologic features on Mars.

On the Kilauea flow, the scientists examined areas of the surface broken up into plates by what appeared to be channels carved by water. However, the channels were actually formed by lava overflowing from rings of hardened lava formed by previous flows. 

This lava surged forward, causing  plates of cooled lava on the surface to break apart and for fresh lava to well up from underneath. The plates crumpled as they approached the rim of existing cliffs.

Understanding this process allowed the scientists to revise their initial interpretation of how similar structures on Mars were formed.

“It is easy to draw conclusions based on our intuition of how water flows,” Hamilton said. “So it is tempting to interpret similar features on Mars the same way. But in fact, these features formed by flowing lava, not water.”

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