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Newborn Pacific Island May Offer Clues About Life On Mars

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An underwater volcano had erupted in the latter part of December 2014 in Tonga, a Polynesian kingdom consisting of over 170 South Pacific islands.

The explosion sent out a powerful stream of rock, ash, and steam, with the plumes of ash reaching a whopping height of 30,000 feet in the sky, so much so that it led to flight diversions. That was not all. The volume of the expelled material was so high that it resulted in the formation of a newborn island.

Satellites in space could see the baby island, which had summit measuring 400 feet, huddled in the middle of two older islands, when the ash set down in January 2015.

What Makes The Newborn Pacific Island So Interesting

Scientists have dubbed the newly created Tongan island as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. It was first thought to be a very temporary land mass with a lifespan of only a couple of months. Researchers from NASA, however, have now predicted that the island has a timeline of six to 30 years.

The island is the first of its kind to survive after an eruption in the modern age of satellite, which gives researchers an unparalleled glimpse from space of its evolution and early life. It provides insight into its long life and the erosion, which impacts new islands.

Comprehending the process could also enable researchers to know more about the same kind of features on Mars and elsewhere in the solar system.

"Everything we learn about what we see on Mars is based on the experience of interpreting Earth phenomena," said study author Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. "We think there were eruptions on Mars at a time when there were areas of persistent surface water. We may be able to use this new Tongan island and its evolution as a way of testing whether any of those represented an oceanic environment or ephemeral lake environment."

Garvin added that researchers might be able to use recognition of these types of landforms to be an indication of “palaeowater stories, depths, and longevities” on Mars. The research team is, therefore, going to use the island as a training ground to understand the Red Planet better.

What the scientists see, which is occurring on the island might be a kind of template to help them gain more insight into early Mars' water environment. They can subsequently understand whether the conditions might also have been conducive for the initiation of simple life on the planet.

Tracking The Island’s Formation

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai is the third Surtsey-kind of a volcanic island that has formed in the past 150 years and persisted beyond a couple of months. Surtsey is the first known island that had its origin in a similar marine eruption and explosion off Iceland’s coast in 1963.

Scientists tracked the island with both radar and optical sensors by high-resolution satellite observations. The researchers mapped the island’s topography in 3D using the obtained imagery. They studied the island’s volume and changing coastlines above sea level and observed that the most dramatic changes took place in its first six months.

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai is nestled on a caldera’s north rim, which perches on top of an undersea volcano measuring nearly 4,600 feet above the surrounding seafloor.

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