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New Volcanic Island Near Tonga Has Mysterious Mud That's Puzzling NASA Scientists

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Vegetation was found growing in the new island in the South Pacific. Researchers explored one of the three youngest islands on Earth back in October. In addition to vegetation and bird life, they found that the 3-year-old volcanic island is covered in light clay mud.   ( Dan Slayback | NASA )

NASA scientists have, for the first time, set foot in one of the newest islands on the planet to explore and study. However, instead of answers, they seem to have uncovered a mystery.

Upon arrival at the volcanic islands in the South Pacific within the nation of Tonga in October, the team was welcomed with light-colored mud and they do not know where it is coming from.

"And then there's clay washing out of the cone," said Dan Slayback of the Goddard Space Flight Center. "In the satellite images, you see this light-colored material. It's mud, this light-colored clay mud. It's very sticky. So even though we'd seen it we didn't really know what it was, and I'm still a little baffled of where it's coming from. Because it's not ash."

Birth Of An Island

The still-unnamed new island came to being in January 2015 as a result of the eruption from the rim of an underwater caldera. It is one of the three islands to emerge in the past 150 years and survive for more than a few months.

Slayback and his colleagues at NASA have been observing the formation of the new island, beginning from its birth, through satellites, trying to create a three-dimensional model of its shape and volume over time. Scientists believe that the 3-year-old island can inform how new islands form and evolve on Earth and perhaps in other parts of the solar system, including Mars.

Bursting With Life

Upon arrival, the team that is made up of scientists, students, and observers from Tonga found that the satellite images do not quite tell the whole tale. The visitors found that the surface was covered with pea-sized black gravel. Moreover, the place is not flat; the waves have formed "come cool patterns" on the gravel.

Another surprise was the vegetation that has already started taking root in the new island. The scientists believe that the seeds might have been transported and brought to the area by the birds flying overhead. They also found a barn own and hundreds of nesting sooting terns.

The team has collected samples (with permission from the locals) for analysis and took GPS measurements of the location.

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