A little Hawaii is found on Mars

  • Article by: AMY HUBBARD , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: April 27, 2012 - 9:01 PM

High-res images of lava coils discovered on Mars, are the first extraterrestrial ones ever identified.

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This image provided by NASA on Thursday, April 26, 2012 shows lava flows in the shape of coils located near the equatorial region of Mars. Analyzing high-resolution images of the region, researchers have determined the area was sculpted by volcanic activity in the recent geologic past. This is the first time such geologic features have been discovered outside of Earth.

Photo: , Associated Press - Ap

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A little bit of Hawaii has been discovered on Mars. Lava coils have been spotted on the surface of the Red Planet, but the Mars version dwarfs anything we've seen after Mauna Loa blows its stack.

The distinctive coils, spotted in a region of valleys near the planet's equator, were captured in high-resolution images by NASA's orbiter and returned to Earth for scientists to pore over. The spirals discovered in those images -- by a graduate student at Arizona State University -- are reportedly the first extraterrestrial lava coils ever identified.

"The spirals and polygonal fractures ... are similar to features seen in the more fluid lava flows on Earth, like those in Hawaii," said Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the Mars Space Laboratory.

This is how such polygonal cracks and coils form: The surface of the lava cools and contracts. But as the lava beneath it cools more slowly, the surface splits open in a polygonal pattern. "It's not too different than the mud cracks you can find in a drying pond," Vasavada said.

Coils form when the cooling lava twists along as the lava flow moves downstream, like a whirl in a river downstream of a rock. But on Mars, "everything is larger and slower because the fluid on Mars is taffy like," he said.

Larger is right. The spirals are up to 100 feet wide, he said, much larger than those in Hawaii, which are 1 to 2 feet. The super-size Mars phenomenon was evident in a recent 12-mile-high dust devil documented on the planet's surface.

"Part of what makes studying other planets so fascinating," Vasavada said, "is to see processes we're familiar with on Earth, but with an unexpected twist because the 'ground rules' have changed."

Another striking thing about the lava patterns is that they speak to the debate over what formed those valleys in the Athabasca Valles region of Mars in the first place -- fire or ice? The scientist noted that "finding bits of circumstantial evidence like these spirals, which form in lava on Earth, will help solve this mystery."

It was Arizona State University graduate student Andrew Ryan who spotted the coils during an analysis for a class project. In Friday's journal Science, Ryan reported his findings. He told Space.com that there's no way ice could explain these patterns: They can be explained only by lava processes," he said.

Scientists will continue to look at the implications of the cracks and spirals and the possibility of a history of water on the planet.

The Mars Science Laboratory, in fact, is on its way to Mars to plumb this mystery. The laboratory carries the Curiosity rover, which is set to land on the surface of Mars on Aug. 5. The laboratory project will follow up on the discovery of clays -- minerals that need liquid water to form -- on Mars.

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