Commanding the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera aboard NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter, a group of 16 seventh-grade students from California looked for lava tubes on the surface of Mars. They found what they were looking for, but they also discovered a small black feature straddling one of the tubes.
The feature near the Pavonis Mons volcano was a hole, punched in the top of a hollow tube. It's a cave on Mars, otherwise known as a "skylight."
The students, from Evergreen Middle School in Cottonwood, California, were participating in the Mars Student Imaging Program (MSIP), a part of Arizona State University's Mars Education Program. This program engages youngsters in real Mars research by getting them to ask questions about the Red Planet's geology. They then find the answers by getting NASA to send observation commands to Odyssey.
It turns out this program has done an awful lot more than engaging the younger generation in space science, they have directly contributed to NASA's Mars Program!
Glen Cushing, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, has discovered skylight features using THEMIS in the past (see Irene's 2007 Discovery News article "Mars Caves Revealed in Images"). But when addressing the students, Cushing made it very clear that their skylight has never been seen before.
"This pit is certainly new to us," said Cushing. "And it is only the second one known to be associated with Pavonis Mons."
He estimates this new skylight to be around 190×160 meters wide and at least 115 meters deep.
So what's next? Well, the students have submitted their find as a candidate for imaging by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). HiRISE has powerful optics, able to see the surface at 30 centimeters per pixel, so if the mission is used to image the site, their skylight may reveal some more of its secrets.
Image: The Mars skylight discovered by Evergreen Middle School students (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)