Four years ago, an underwater volcano erupted in the South Pacific, forming a new island. And NASA noted this.
The evolution of the island could contain clues about how water could have shaped similar features on Mars billions of years ago, according to NASA's space agency, satellite photographs began collect to track how the elements on the land carved and scratched.
The images provided Insights how the island eroded them, but the story they told eroded was limited. NASA could use these measurements to gather more information from the photographs, but James Garvin, senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, could not justify the cost of sending a team. Then there was an opportunity.
Mr. Garvin seized the opportunity and sent Dan [Slayback] a NASA scientist who had been working to track the island's development.
Mr. Slayback sailed on this trip last fall and found an island of black rock, which to his surprise was also full of life.
"It was very dramatic," he said. "Just beautiful, dramatic."
The island, which is part of Tonga, is about two-thirds of a square mile and about 1,300 miles northeast of New Zealand. It has not been named yet, but is unofficially referred to as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, a combination of the names of the two older, uninhabited islands between which it lies. (A land bridge connects all three.)
The most striking features are a turquoise lake and a croissant ridge – the remnants of a cone of hardened ash – that is about 400 feet high and about a mile wide, Slayback said.
After staring at the island's satellite photos for years, he was overwhelmed to finally see the breathtaking landscape in early October. He also wanted to get to work.
The satellite photographs show how the island has perished over time, but its level of detail is limited as a context without three-dimensional reference points. With the help of the students, Mr. Slayback roamed the island with a finely tuned GPS device and recorded the position of the various features visible on the photos with an accuracy of a few centimeters.
These measurements enable the NASA team Mr. Garvin said he had refined the models he had created and tightened erosion in the track .
"Instead of a map with the resolution of a chair where you would sit at your desk, we have a map of topography, the three-dimensionality, of this new island that is good to a size of a few fingers," he said ,
Using these finer models, scientists are better able to compare the changing shape of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai with Mars' volcanic forms and erosion patterns to better understand the extent to which water was present in the water possibly should have played in the landscaping of 19459005.
In addition to assisting Mr. Slayback with the measurements, the students and faculty collected rock samples and documented the vegetation growing on the island. They were also surprised to find a thriving bird population.
"The number of birds, the number of bird eggs, and the number of chicks were amazing," said Rachel Scudder, chief scientist at the Sea Education Association. said. "There were places where we could not really get to the wall of the caldera for fear of kicking on chicks."
Birds included sooty terns and at least one barn owl, Mr. Slayback said. The group also found grass and beach mornings sprouting from ground-like spots on the otherwise barren, rocky surface of the island .
They also came across signs of human life: garbage was scattered across parts of the island. Probably the Tropic Cyclone Gita was probably churned up last year, although some of the garbage may have been left behind by visitors to the surrounding islands, according to Jeffrey Wescott, a professor of anthropology. The students filled and removed about a dozen bags of garbage, most of them plastic bottles.
The volcanic eruption that gave birth to the island occurred in December 2014, with ashes thrown up to 30,000 feet and disrupting flights. The island was partially formed when this ash fell back to earth and hardened after mixing with warm water, Mr. Garvin said.
When the island was created, the NASA team believed it would not survive much longer than a decade. (That was part of the reason why it could not be justified to send a team there.) After visiting the rocks from the island, visiting and observing how they weathered the elements, the team expects that it will remain for several decades hundreds of years.
"Things are looking good right now," Mr. Garvin said. "The island can cement itself."