Hawaii Kilauea Volcano Lava Fields May Help Astrobiologists Understand Mars

The new volcanic landscape is fertile ground.

Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has bubbled and burped steadily since 1983, but for nearly a month now, it’s gotten a lot more serious. At last count, more than 20 new lava-emitting fissures have opened, and over 2,000 residents have evacuated their homes to make way for the flowing lava. Destruction aside, though, all this geological activity could have an unexpected side effect of helping scientists better understand Mars.

Basalt, a volcanic rock found on Hawaii and around volcanic regions all over Earth, also covers a large portion of the surface of Mars. By studying the volcanic landscape on the Big Island after Kilauea’s current episode, astrobiologists hope to gain a clearer picture of how life may have developed on Mars — if it ever did. Researchers conducting surveys of the geological landscape, reports The New York Times, have the unique opportunity to see microbial life begin on a brand new geological surface. With the recent activity on Kilauea, scientists will get a new set of formations to interrogate some of these unanswered questions.

“The reason why there continue to be questions, and programs like ours that go out and try to answer the questions — Was Mars habitable? Is it currently habitable? — is that nobody really knows,” Darlene Lim, Ph.D., a NASA geobiologist and the principal investigator of the Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains (BASALT) project, tells The Times. Without sending humans to Mars or starting a whole new planet from scratch, newly-formed volcanic landscapes provide the best opportunity for researchers to explore these questions.

In fact, Hawaii has long hosted a unique set of NASA-funded experiments aimed at helping us better understand our planetary neighbor. On the slopes of Mauna Loa — which actually shares a magma source with Kilauea — NASA has been training humans to endure conditions like those that they might encounter during missions to Mars. One mission, which ended in 2015, lasted eight months, and a longer one-year mission ended in the summer of 2016.

Lim and her colleagues conducted their last round of fieldwork in the area evacuated this month, so they haven’t been affected by Kilauea’s recent activity. They do plan to return though. The fresh volcanic forms created during eruptions can give both astrobiologists and would-be astronauts a chance to experience conditions similar to the very early days of landscape formation.

Lim and her team will publish findings from their latest work later this year. In the meantime, you can revel in the fact that we’re seeing the same creative and destructive forces at work that also shaped other planets all over the universe.