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Artists's rendering of the Mars Odyssey spacecraft orbiting Mars. Graphic rendering of NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which students use to photograph Mars. (NASA)

Seventh-Graders Make Mars Discovery

Science class in California spots an unknown crater on Mars

By Zach Jones | June 23 , 2010
See the black spot in the red square? That's the pit crater discovered by students. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU)
See the black spot in the red square? That's the pit crater discovered by students. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU)

A class of seventh-graders in Cottonwood, California, has made headlines in the scientific world. These eagle-eyed Evergreen Middle School students, who were participating in a special NASA program, spotted an unusual hole on the surface of Mars.

Scientists now think the hole is a pit crater that leads into a buried Martian cave. It's estimated to be 620 feet wide and at least 380 feet deep.

The students were participating in the Mars Student Imaging Program. This special program lets students use NASA's technology inside their classrooms.

An Out-of-This-World Class Project

Students in the Mars Student Imaging Program are asked to think of a geological question about Mars to research. Then students can adjust the cameras on NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft to help answer their question.

"The students developed a research project focused on finding the most common locations of lava tubes on Mars," said their teacher, Dennis Mitchell. "Do they occur most often near the summit of a volcano, on its flanks, or the plains surrounding it?"

So the class pointed Mars Odyssey's cameras at lava flows near Pavonis Mons, a large volcano on Mars. That area of the Red Planet is rarely photographed.

Their photos revealed lava flows, as the class had hoped. But they also showed the unexpected pit crater.

"[The Mars Student Imaging Program] gives the students a good understanding of the way research is conducted and how that research can be important for the scientific community," Mr. Mitchell said. "This has been a wonderful experience."

An Important Discovery

The crater could be a very big discovery. Scientists have even visited the class to tell students why their discovery is so important.

"This pit is certainly new to us," U.S. Geological Survey scientist Glen Cushing told the class. "And it is only the second one known to be associated with Pavonis Mons."

Scientists are excited because unknown minerals could be hidden in these caves. One theory suggests ancient volcanoes created the tunnels. The tunnels then became hollowed out once the Martian lava cooled. Holes like the one Mr. Mitchell's class found are like skylights into these unexplored caves, Cushing explained.

NASA's Mars Odyssey has been in orbit since 2001. The spacecraft relays information between Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers that roam the Martian surface to take measurements and pictures of the landscape. Who knows what students will find next with the orbiter's help?

VIDEO: Click here to learn more about NASA's Mars Student Imaging Program!

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