University of Pittsburgh
February 8, 2005

Pitt Researcher to Study Lava on Mars

Ramsey and colleagues will compare Hawaiian, Martian lava flows
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH—A University of Pittsburgh professor has received a three-year grant from NASA to study lava flow surfaces on Mars and Earth. The goal of the study, titled "Mars Lava Flow Surface Morphology: An Avenue for Answering Fundamental Questions Regarding the Rates and Styles of Volcanism," is to better interpret information on new volcanic surfaces in Hawaii and then to apply that knowledge to older geologic surfaces on Mars.

Michael Ramsey, assistant professor in the Department of Geology and Planetary Science in Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences, will perform the research in conjunction with lead investigator Steve Anderson of Black Hills State University, in Spearfish, S.D., and colleagues at other institutions. This $160,000 research award dovetails with Ramsey's other NASA-funded projects, which total more than $1.3 million.

"This research is critical to understanding and better interpreting the data we are observing from Mars," said Ramsey. "The detailed field measurements and laboratory modeling will give us information about how these flows appear and, more importantly, change, once they have stopped flowing."

Fluid lava flows can transform dramatically soon after they stop flowing, inflating to many times their original thickness. Such behavior alters the way they look from a satellite and changes their thermal emissivity, a property the researchers use to map chemical compositions from space.

"Our hope is that by gaining a better understanding of the flows in Hawaii, we will be able to interpret the conditions on Mars, at the time the flows formed there," said Ramsey. Martian lava flows seen from orbit are strikingly similar to older lava flows seen on the Big Island of Hawaii. Mars has several large areas dominated by volcanoes, and is home to the largest volcano in our solar system, Olympus Mons, which is more than 60,000 feet tall and covers an area larger than Colorado.

The scientists will study how underlying topography, interior structure, and heat flow affect the final appearance of lava flows. To measure new flows occurring in Hawaii, Ramsey will deploy his high-precision field equipment, which includes a thermal infrared camera and Global Positioning System/laser mapping unit. Other methods will include analyzing data from Mars and using wax to model flows.

In the final stage of the study, Ramsey and colleagues will focus on the role chemical composition plays on the surface appearance of lava flows.

This research is funded by NASA's Mars Fundamental Research Program.