MU Team maps Venus for NASA

Next year, Mercyhurst University Geology majors Cole Nypaver and Elliott Baker, along with Nicholas Lang, Ph.D., are embarking on a three-year project, funded by NASA, to produce a geological map of part of the surface of Venus.

The map will be created largely by studying radar data collected from NASA’s Magellan mission that took place in the early 1990s. The portion of Venus they are mapping is roughly the size of Australia. The quadrant they will be studying is called Mahuea Tholus, Maori for “goddess of fire.”

Most geographical features have special names and Venus’ are no different. All features on the second planet from the sun are named after women.

“Mahuea Tholus is also the name of a very unusual volcano that sits in the middle of the map area that has puzzled geologists since it was first observed,” Lang said.

The funding took several months to acquire and came from a new NASA program. The Planetary Data Archiving, Restoration and Tools program aims to fund projects that make available new data for the planetary science community.

“This is a long process that can take up to six months to complete, if not longer. So it requires a lot of patience,” Lang said.

The project has two beneficiaries: the scientific community and Mercyhurst students. The scientific community will gain a large amount of useful data for further research from this project.

“The creation of a geologic map is the first step undertaken by geologists when trying to constrain the history of a region—all geological studies begin with a geologic map,” Lang said.

The map will show the history of the region, along with geographic features such as volcanoes, water features and wind patterns left on the surface.

“[A geological map] shows the distribution of different rock types and structures at the surface of a planet,” said Lang. “If we understand the processes that have shaped an area, then anything else we want to know about that area falls into place.”

When completed, the United States Geological Survey will publish the map and it will be accessible to the public.

Students are the second beneficiaries of the project. Two undergraduate students will be picked each year for the next three years to work on the mapping.

“I see our job as faculty as to create opportunities for our students and to place them into positions where they can be successful with those opportunities and I believe that is something that will definitely happen here,” Lang said.

This provides incredible hands-on, real life experience. “It’s an incredible opportunity and I’m very very excited to have this chance,” Baker said.

In addition to the Mercyhurst team, Bradley Thomson, Ph.D., from Boston University will be working on the project.

“All of the planets in our solar system are unique, but why are they unique?” Lang asked.

Mercyhurst University faculty and students are hoping to find the answer to this and many other questions with this incredible opportunity.