Sequoyah High School Students Join with NASA to Study Mars
Cheers recently filled a Sequoyah High School physics classroom as students watched a live download of an image of the surface of Mars never before seen by humans. The Honors Physics students, under the direction of teacher Kim Geddes, established a collaborative research effort with the NASA Mars Space Flight Center to image an uncharted area of the Martian surface and then analyze the image to answer a research question the students developed based on their review of published research by other Mars scientists.
NASA’s Odyssey Program allows humankind to search beyond the limits of Earth’s atmosphere and beyond Earth’s moon to discover a planet that exhibits similarities with Earth. One of those similarities is the presence of water, and since water is a necessary condition for life, the students sought to obtain evidence to determine the presence of water on the Martian surface. The research question was, “Among channels existing on the surface of Mars, how prevalent are those exhibiting evidence of origins in fluvial systems rather than volcanic flow?” The term, fluvial systems, refers to systems formed by water flow, such as systems of creeks and rivers, or flood water.
The students collected data via the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), a camera onboard the Martian satellite Odyssey, capable of producing images with both visible and infrared light. The students worked with NASA to target a surface area never before photographed, and the image data was collected via real-time streaming from the current orbital location of Mars Odyssey. The students focused their research on the presence of channels and specifically whether those channels were formed by lava or water flow. The student researchers applied specific criteria approved by NASA to determine the cause of formation of the channels in the image collected. After conducting the research, the students participated in a live web-based session with NASA to present their findings. The students reported that their THEMIS image displayed some characteristics that supported the existence of past fluvial systems; however, evidence of lava systems was also discovered. The students expanded their area of research to include charted surface areas in the vicinity of their area with the hope of discovering additional evidence of the cause of the channels, but the expanded search was to no avail.
“While there was evidence supporting fluvial systems in our target THEMIS image, there was not enough evidence from the surrounding area for us to conclude definitively that our channel was created by water flow,” said student Natalie Hopkins, one of the presenters in the live session.
Features found in the image and research of the surrounding area revealed characteristics of both water and lava. Joe Garcia, another student presenter offered a possible explanation: “Since the area displays evidence of both fluvial and lava systems, it is possible that a volcanic eruption could have melted surface ice and created a system of flowing water and lava,” but future work is needed before this conclusion can be drawn.
Mrs. Geddes said she hopes to continue the research with the rising Honors Physics students next year, thus, giving those students the opportunity to continue the collaboration with NASA and to solve the quandary.
“The research question was developed with the goal of gaining an understanding of the relationship between life-sustaining water on Earth and the presence of water on Mars,” student Yulian Vieta said.
In appreciation for their collaborative research, the Mars Space Flight Center presented all members of the Honors Physics class with laminated posters of their sector of Mars, and Mars latitude 18.662 North, longitude 184.154 East forever will be labeled Sequoyah High School Honors Physics.