Middle-school students discover cave on Mars

Posted by Emma Woollacott

A seventh-grade class in Cottonwood, California, has discovered a Martian cave.

The 16 students at Evergreen Middle School were studying lava tubes for their class project as part of Arizona State University's Mars Education Program.

The program allowed them to actually command a Mars-orbiting camera to take an image, allowing them to look for lava tubes around volcanoes. They chose an area on Pavonis Mons volcano that had yet to be photographed by THEMIS at its highest resolution of 18 meters.

On their two targeted images the students found lava tubes, as they had hoped. And on one, they also found a small, round black spot.

Similar spots were described by Glen Cushing, a US Geological Survey scientist, in 2007. He argued that these straight-sided pit craters were 'skylights' – places where a small part of the roof of a cave or a lava tube had collapsed, opening the subsurface to the sky.

"This pit is certainly new to us," says Cushing. "And it is only the second one known to be associated with Pavonis Mons. "It sticks out like a sore thumb in THEMIS predawn thermal observations."

The pit is estimated to be approximately 190 by 160 meters wide and at least 115 meters deep. The students are hoping to get a better look at it, and have submitted their site as a candidate for imaging by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

HiRISE can image the surface at about 30 centimeters per pixel, which may allow a look inside the hole.

"The Mars Student Imaging Program is certainly one of the greatest educational programs ever developed," said class teacher Dennis Mitchell.  "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."