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Pacific News Minute: New Pacific Island Mimics Mars

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

This week, NASA scientists explained how a new volcanic island in the South Pacific could help them figure out where to look for signs of life on Mars. More from Neal Conan in today’s Pacific News Minute.

In 2015, an underwater eruption threw up a new island in the Tongan Archipelago. Scientists dubbed the 400 foot tall ash cone Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai and expected the Pacific to smash it to pieces within a few months.

Before that could happen, though, a protective sandbar formed. Warm water hardened the ash into a resilient rock, and the island now has a life expectancy of as much as thirty years. 

On Monday, James Garvin, the chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center told a news conference at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union that Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai looks very much like thousands of volcanoes on Mars.

Scientists believe they, too, emerged from underwater eruptions, so studies of the new island in the South Pacific could tell them about water flows on Mars billions of years ago, and maybe something much more intriguing.

Here on Earth, we know that life can arise around volcanic vents that spew hot, mineral rich water from the ocean floor. Doctor Garvin said the same process could have happened at hydro-thermal systems on Mars, and that the evidence could still be there.

“We talk about bio-signature preservation potential,” he said, noting that it’s one of the missions planned for NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover.

In the meantime, scientists can continue to study Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai. A long way off in the South Pacific, but a lot closer than Mars.

Over 36 years with National Public Radio, Neal Conan worked as a correspondent based in New York, Washington, and London; covered wars in the Middle East and Northern Ireland; Olympic Games in Lake Placid and Sarajevo; and a presidential impeachment. He served, at various times, as editor, producer, and executive producer of All Things Considered and may be best known as the long-time host of Talk of the Nation. Now a macadamia nut farmer on Hawaiʻi Island, his "Pacific News Minute" can be heard on HPR Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
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