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Why Hawaii?

For the planetary scientists of the RIS4E project, it’s not about the beaches. They came for the lava.

There are 13 “microclimates” and a continent’s range of terrain on the island of Hawaii, the biggest of the state’s five islands: from rainforests and jungle to mountains and deserts. And, of course, the lava fields of the island’s five volcanoes—some from eruptions 10,000 years ago, others as recent as last fall.

Meet the RIS4E Field Leader

Jacob Bleacher


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It’s the lava fields, particularly those of Mount Kilauea on the island’s southeastern side, that draw volcanologists from around the world, as well as planetary scientists who want to study terrain that approximates that of the Moon, Mars and other bodies of the Solar System. It is those “analogs” that brought the RIS4E field team to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in early June 2015.

The team members flew to the island from two NASA space flight centers—Johnson in Houston and Goddard in Maryland—and from Stony Brook University in New York, where the five-year RIS4E project is based, and gathered at a compound of guest cottages that would serve as their base camp for the 10-day field mission.

On the first day in the field, they drove down a road densely packed with jungle vegetation before moving deeper into the park, away from the tourist areas, where the leaves and trees began to thin out and the jungle gave way to a desert of reddish rock and sparse unlikely patches of shrubbery. From the roadside, the great expanse was reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. Not long into the trek, though, it was evident that these rocks were different—that hardened volcanic lava is like nothing else on Earth. But as the Apollo landings and NASA’s later unmanned missions revealed, is is like the Moon and Mars. Indeed, with the dark crumbly lava the only sight for miles around, and the wind and crunch of boots the only sounds, it was easy to imagine: Yes, this is what it must be like on Mars.

There are five volcanoes on the Big Island—a sixth, under the sea, is projected to emerge, and enlarge the island, in 250,000 years or so—and what attracts scientists from all over the world is that they are composed of basaltic rock, a dark, fine-grained volcanic rock that forms when lava cools quickly. The Moon and Mars both have basaltic terrains so sampling on Hawaii’s volcanoes is the best way on Earth to learn about other planetary surfaces—and plan for future trips to space.

“A lot of stuff on the Moon is grey when you look at it,” said Timothy Glotch, the Stony Brook geoscientist who is the principal investigator of the RIS4E project. “If you’re an astronaut, you want to know where you should spend your time.”

Astronauts who some day land on the Moon or Mars will be tasked with choosing varied and valuable samples that can give the most information about the terrain of the area they’re in.

The RIS4E field study comprised four teams, each operating an innovative instrument designed to analyze the composition and history of rocks in a different way. Their goal was to evaluate whether the devices could make sampling easier for astronauts who aren’t trained in geology.

The Instrument Teams

LIDAR—for Light Detection and Ranging—uses lasers to create three-dimensional representations of landforms. The LIDAR operators used the 50-pound device to map the topography of lava flows, lava tubes and caves. The LIDAR team worked with a colleague operating low-aerial kite photography to help gather detailed topography data.

XRD—X-ray diffraction—uses a portable instrument called the Terra for field testing. Inside its bright orange case, small particles of the sample are shot with X-rays. The rays diffract and bounce onto a detector, and from that pattern the mineralogy of the sample can be found.

XRF—X-ray fluorescence—uses a gun-shaped device to shoot X-rays into a rock and gather data on the chemical elements of the sample.

TIR—thermal infrared remote sensing—uses a modified spectral imaging camera to detect the temperatures of rocks. The temperatures reflect differences in mineralogy.

Learn about the different types of lava in this video (6:21):