Students in the introductory astronomy class studied hundreds of images of Mars this past semester.
They measured and counted craters, evaluated volcanoes, and saw how the planet's topography has changed since the first images were taken about a decade ago.
Their class labs revolved around the Mars Student Imaging Project, which supplies data in the form of images taken from the 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Students use the data to make scientific observations about the surface of the Red Planet.
“The students spend the first couple of weeks learning basic geology of Mars and then develop their own scientific question,” says Dr. Heidi Manning, physics professor, who teaches one of the astronomy sections. “It is a wonderful opportunity to get students hands-on experience with authentic research data.”
One of the student groups evaluated the relationship of caves on Mars and elevation. The students were hoping to use the data to find other caves on the planet.
“Our goal was to find a common denominator for the caves’ locations and then hopefully discover a cave that has never been found before,” says Kaley Sievert '17, Bethel, Minn.
Sievert says that’s harder than it might sound. The images the students used were taken by THEMIS, the Thermal Emission Imaging System. THEMIS has taken more than a half million images over 12 years, which have led to several scientific discoveries on Mars. Each student group was allowed to request a specific image from THEMIS to assist with their research.
Jesse Johnson '15, Golden Valley, Minn., says through the process he developed a new appreciation for researchers.
“It was exciting to be doing real research that could help others do even more research on Mars,” Johnson says. “Our data could be the crucial piece someone else uses to make a new discovery. We are participating in a global scientific community.”
The students presented their findings to Mars scientists at Arizona State University at the conclusion of the semester.