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Science notes / Astronomy

Mars has huge lava coils

A little bit of Hawaii has been discovered on Mars. Lava coils have been spotted on the surface of the Red Planet, but the Mars version dwarfs anything we've seen after Mauna Loa blows its stack.

The distinctive coils, spotted in a region of valleys near the planet's equator, were captured in high-resolution images by NASA's orbiter and returned to Earth for scientists to pore over. The spirals discovered in those images -- by a graduate student at Arizona State University -- are reportedly the first extraterrestrial lava coils ever identified.

"The spirals and polygonal fractures are similar to features seen in the more fluid lava flows on Earth, like those in Hawaii," said Ashwin R. Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the Mars Space Laboratory.

Coils form when the cooling lava twists along as the lava flow moves downstream. But on Mars, "everything is larger and slower because the fluid on Mars is taffy like," he said.

Larger is right. The spirals are up to 100 feet wide, much larger than those in Hawaii, which are 1 to 2 feet.

The lava patterns also speak to the long debate over what formed those valleys in the Athabasca Valles region of Mars in the first place -- fire or ice? "Finding bits of circumstantial evidence like these spirals, which form in lava on Earth, will help solve this mystery," he said.

-- Los Angeles Times