(16,000 Years) After the Volcano: Data Mining at Kilbourne Hole

The RIS4E team hikes around the rim of Kilbourne Hole en route to the next waypoint. (Photo: Katherine Wright)

(16,000 Years) After the Volcano:

Data Mining at Kilbourne Hole

The RIS4E team hikes around the rim of Kilbourne Hole en route to the next waypoint. (Photo: Katherine Wright)

By Katherine Wright

An hour’s drive from civilization sits Kilbourne Hole, a bone-dry crater lined with rugged black rocks and spindly green cacti. The only sound is the wind as it whips up dust and rustles leaves.

This section of the southern New Mexico landscape is part of a vast swath of desert that sweeps from Nevada to central Mexico. But Kilbourne Hole wasn’t always a desert, or a hole. Until around 16,000 years ago, this spot and the surrounding area, known as Potrillo, were covered in volcanoes hissing steam, spewing ash, and oozing molten lava.  One or more violent volcanic explosions created Kilbourne’s 300-foot-deep, mile-wide crater before the region went quiet.

Jose Hurtado gives a tour of Kilbourne Hole.

Now scientists are interrupting Kilbourne’s tranquility. In June, a  NASA research team called RIS4E—for Remote In Situ and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration—spent three days at the crater testing geology instruments that could one day accompany astronauts exploring the moon, asteroids, or possibly Mars. Why here is a matter of Kilbourne Hole’s geological composition. “It’s similar to features we see on Mars and the moon,” said Jose Hurtado, a member of the RIS4E team and a geologist at the nearby University of Texas at El Paso. “This makes it a great analog for those kinds of geological features.”

The trek to the desert featured an actual astronaut carrying out simulated spacewalks—EVAs, in NASA jargon, for extra-vehicular activity. The team monitored both how the stand-in space crew used the portable instruments and what clues from Kilbourne’s past the instruments might extract. Based on these tests, the team will make recommendations to NASA about how the devices might be improved for optimal results on future manned missions.

“If we do get people back to putting boot prints on some kind of solar system object, we want to make sure that the instruments that go [with them] are built right to do the job that we have them up there to do,” said Jacob Bleacher, a geoscientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the leader of this and previous RIS4E research trips.

“The goal of this RIS4E trip is to put the instruments in an EVA scenario to see how they perform with humans in the loop,” added Kelsey Young, a geoscientist at both Goddard and Johnson Space Center in Houston and the field team’s science lead.

The team tested five instruments on the field campaign. The NASA scientists envision that two of the instruments would be affixed to an astronaut’s rover, surveying the landscape that the crew explores. The other three devices would be used directly by the astronauts, giving them near-instant information about the chemistry and mineralogy of the rocks around them. “This won’t take the place of taking a sample and bringing it back home to look at,” said Bleacher. Rather, these instruments would help astronauts, and scientists back on Earth, select the right rocks to return to maximize what is learned.

Kilbourne Hole was the most recent place Bleacher and his team have tested their devices.  On several trips over the four years of the RIS4E project, the scientists have deployed the instruments on Hawaii, whose volcanic fields are considered the closest analogs to the landscapes of the moon and Mars. In Hawaii, the RIS4E team tested the instruments on various large-scale, uniform lava flows. At Kilbourne Hole, they put the devices to a tougher test: Could they tease out information about fine-scale geologic structures, like the chemistry of distinct, narrow layers of sand in a cliff face?

Where's the Volcano?


It’s not always easy to tell because volcanoes come in varieties beyond the classic cone.

Read more

Kilbourne's Green Gems

Olivine (called peridot as a gem) was torn from deep in the Earth when the volcano erupted.

Read more

Apollo 17’s Jack Schmitt and current astronaut Butch Wilmore hike toward a cliff face at Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Elizabeth Bass)
CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

On an actual space mission, such features would be key to understanding how a landscape on another planetary surface took shape. But they would be incredibly difficult to preserve and bring back to Earth. “Imagine trying to sample [sand layers] in a way that you preserve the original texture and structure—that’d be next to impossible,” said Young. “But in situ [on-site] instruments enable you to study those features . . . and get the contextual information that you’d otherwise destroy.”

Whether Kilboure Hole was formed by one, two or several eruptions is something scientists can’t say. What they do know is that the action blasted through multiple layers of dried-up lava flows and rock. According to Hurtado, these rocks were deposited by lakes and rivers and are up to a few million years old. The event pulverized the rocks into fine grains and ash, which rained back down to earth and remain today layered stripes less than half an inch thick around the excavated hole.

By determining the chemistry of the layers and how they extend around the crater, scientists might draw clues to whether there was a singular eruption or multiple blowouts. They might also learn what direction the ash and lava flows traveled and  how much water was present when the explosion occurred. These are the same questions scientists have about geological features on our solar system’s rocky bodies.

It is too soon for the RIS4E scientists to know what information they unearthed about Kilbourne Hole’s creation, or what design changes they might suggest for the various devices. That will take months of data analysis and trips back to the volcanic field for more data. But the geoscientists found promise in the quick and dirty look at the data they took while in New Mexico. As they hoped, the instruments did pick up differences in the chemistry of the various grain and ash deposits they measured. “We’ve gotten a long way this week,” Young said. “But we still have more to do.”

By Katherine Wright

An hour’s drive from civilization sits Kilbourne Hole, a bone-dry crater lined with rugged black rocks and spindly green cacti. The only sound is the wind as it whips up dust and rustles leaves.

This section of the southern New Mexico landscape is part of a vast swath of desert that sweeps from Nevada to central Mexico. But Kilbourne Hole wasn’t always a desert, or a hole. Until around 16,000 years ago, this spot and the surrounding area, known as Potrillo, were covered in volcanoes hissing steam, spewing ash, and oozing molten lava.  One or more violent volcanic explosions created Kilbourne’s 300-foot-deep, mile-wide crater before the region went quiet.

Jose Hurtado gives a tour of Kilbourne Hole.

Now scientists are interrupting Kilbourne’s tranquility. In June, a  NASA research team called RIS4E—for Remote In Situ and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration—spent three days at the crater testing geology instruments that could one day accompany astronauts exploring the moon, asteroids, or possibly Mars. Why here is a matter of Kilbourne Hole’s geological composition. “It’s similar to features we see on Mars and the moon,” said Jose Hurtado, a member of the RIS4E team and a geologist at the nearby University of Texas at El Paso. “This makes it a great analog for those kinds of geological features.”

The trek to the desert featured an actual astronaut carrying out simulated spacewalks—EVAs, in NASA jargon, for extra-vehicular activity. The team monitored both how the stand-in space crew used the portable instruments and what clues from Kilbourne’s past the instruments might extract. Based on these tests, the team will make recommendations to NASA about how the devices might be improved for optimal results on future manned missions.

“If we do get people back to putting boot prints on some kind of solar system object, we want to make sure that the instruments that go [with them] are built right to do the job that we have them up there to do,” said Jacob Bleacher, a geoscientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the leader of this and previous RIS4E research trips.

“The goal of this RIS4E trip is to put the instruments in an EVA scenario to see how they perform with humans in the loop,” added Kelsey Young, a geoscientist at both Goddard and Johnson Space Center in Houston and the field team’s science lead.

The team tested five instruments on the field campaign. The NASA scientists envision that two of the instruments would be affixed to an astronaut’s rover, surveying the landscape that the crew explores. The other three devices would be used directly by the astronauts, giving them near-instant information about the chemistry and mineralogy of the rocks around them. “This won’t take the place of taking a sample and bringing it back home to look at,” said Bleacher. Rather these instruments would help astronauts, and scientists back on Earth, select the right rocks to return to maximize what is learned.

Kilbourne Hole was the most recent place Bleacher and his team have tested their devices.  On several trips over the four years of the RIS4E project, the scientists have deployed the instruments on Hawaii, whose volcanic fields are considered the closest analogs to the landscapes of the moon and Mars. In Hawaii, the RIS4E team tested the instruments on various large-scale, uniform lava flows. At Kilbourne Hole, they put the devices to a tougher test: Could they tease out information about fine-scale geologic structures, like the chemistry of distinct, narrow layers of sand in a cliff face?

Apollo 17’s Jack Schmitt and current astronaut Butch Wilmore hike toward a cliff face at Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Elizabeth Bass)
CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

On an actual space mission, such features would be key to understanding how a landscape on another planetary surface took shape. But they would be incredibly difficult to preserve and bring back to Earth. “Imagine trying to sample [sand layers] in a way that you preserve the original texture and structure—that’d be next to impossible,” said Young. “But in situ [on-site] instruments enable you to study those features . . . and get the contextual information that you’d otherwise destroy.”

Whether Kilboure Hole was formed by one, two or several eruptions is something scientists can’t say. What they do know is that the action blasted through multiple layers of dried-up lava flows and rock. According to Hurtado, these rocks were deposited by lakes and rivers and are up to a few million years old. The event pulverized the rocks into fine grains and ash, which rained back down to earth and remain today layered stripes less than half an inch thick around the excavated hole.

By determining the chemistry of the layers and how they extend around the crater, scientists might draw clues to whether there was a singular eruption or multiple blowouts. They might also learn what direction the ash and lava flows traveled and  how much water was present when the explosion occurred. These are the same questions scientists have about geological features on our solar system’s rocky bodies.

It is too soon for the RIS4E scientists to know what information they unearthed about Kilbourne Hole’s creation, or what design changes they might suggest for the various devices. That will take months of data analysis and trips back to the volcanic field for more data. But the geoscientists found promise in the quick and dirty look at the data they took while in New Mexico. As they hoped, the instruments did pick up differences in the chemistry of the various grain and ash deposits they measured. “We’ve gotten a long way this week,” Young said. “But we still have more to do.”

Where's the Volcano?


It’s not always easy to tell because volcanoes come in varieties beyond the classic cone.

Read more

Kilbourne's Green Gems

Olivine (called peridot as a gem) was torn from deep in the Earth when the volcano erupted.

Read more