Martian Clues on a Baby Island

  • Released Monday, May 21st, 2018
  • Updated Wednesday, May 3rd, 2023 at 1:46PM
View full credits

In late December 2014, a submarine volcano in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga erupted, sending a violent stream of steam, ash and rock into the air. The ash plumes rose as high as 30,000 feet into the sky. When the ash finally settled in January 2015, a newborn island with a 400-foot summit nestled between two older islands – visible to satellites in space. The newly formed Tongan island, unofficially known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai after its neighbors, was initially projected to last a few months, washed away by the ocean. But to the surprise of NASA's science team tracking the evolution of the island using monthly, high-resolution satellites observations from the French space agency's Pléades-1A and DigitalGlobe's Worldview satellites, as well as the Canadian Space Agency's RadarSat-2 observations, the island has survived for more than three years. And, it shows a remarkable resemblance to volcanic formations on Mars. Understanding the processes that shape the Tongan island could provide insights into these Martian features which may have formed in in a similarly wet environment – locations ripe for looking for signs of past life.

The Tongan island has a round shape in the first clear satellite image after it formed, taken January 19, 2015.

The Tongan island has a round shape in the first clear satellite image after it formed, taken January 19, 2015.

Digital elevation map made from satellite data shows the island on April 21, 2015.

Digital elevation map made from satellite data shows the island on April 21, 2015.

Digital elevation map made from satellite data shows the island on September 19, 2017.

Digital elevation map made from satellite data shows the island on September 19, 2017.

This digital elevation map of a Mars volcano has similarities to the Tongan island that suggest similar processes may have shaped it.

This digital elevation map of a Mars volcano has similarities to the Tongan island that suggest similar processes may have shaped it.

The Tongan island has a crater lake at its center.

The Tongan island has a crater lake at its center.

The composition of the tephra cliffs that make up the core of the island may explain how the island resists erosion.

The composition of the tephra cliffs that make up the core of the island may explain how the island resists erosion.

For More Information



Credits

Please give credit for this item to:
NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio

Satellite image of the Tongan Island courtesy of Pleiades-1A ©2015 CNES Distribution Airbus DS

Photo of the tephra cliffs on the island is courtesy of NASA/Damien Grouille/Cecile Sabau

Mars image courtesy of NASA/JPL/U. Arizona