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Students Team Up With NASA To Study New Island

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai island, January 2017
Landsat 8, NASA,
Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai island, January 2017"

Meet the world’s newest island. It was born in a volcanic eruption in 2015 and connected two existing islands, Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai in Polynesia. Once it cooled off, fishermen and scientists started taking a closer look at the new land mass.

We know that many islands in the Pacific Ocean formed from volcanic activity, but we haven’t gotten a chance to watch the process happen very often. After all, it’s not every day that a new island pops up.

And the fact that the new island is still around four years later is also pretty rare. It’s only the third new island in 150 years to last more than a few months. The others soon crumbled back into the sea.

Because the island stuck around, scientists at NASA started to wonder if it could shed light on early volcanic activity on Mars. But rather than studying it with remote imaging and rovers, they’ve teamed up with Sea Education Association (SEA) to sail there and study it in person.

“We can get closer,” explained Kerry A. Whittaker, assistant professor of oceanography at SEA. “It's scary. It's romantic. It really combines all of the elements of navigation, of the physics of the winds, of movement.”

Because the island is new, there are no maps. The students, who will set sail this week, are literally sailing into uncharted waters. They’ll also be collecting data that will help answer questions about how islands evolve over time and erode, Whitaker said.

It turns out that this could also teach us about the history of Mars.

“Mars may not look like it, but Mars is a water planet,” said Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. “Its water stories are hidden in the rocks that we've been crawling over with robots. We'll have students act like our robots.”

Scientists think Mars once had standing bodies of water on the surface and volcanoes that erupted into these bodies, much like the new island in Polynesia.

“However, the water is gone,” he said. “It's either frozen out, oxidized rocks, or evaporated way into the current climate state.”

The landforms on Mars are in a state of arrested development, he said. “Something happened. They formed. It's gone. The record books are gone.”

On earth, the ocean is still here, so the new island can help scientists understand how Mars’ features may have formed when it still had liquid water on the surface.

“That's a great natural laboratory,” Garvin said.

“Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.