California State University, Fullerton

A-Z Index

CSUF Home   »   INSIDE
Life in a Lava Tube

Science teachers and NASA researchers study lava tubes at CSU’s Desert Studies Center.

Life in a Lava Tube

School teachers help NASA scientists practice looking for life on other planets

May 1, 2007

By Russ Hudson

Geoff Hammond, a teacher at Lakeview School in Huntington Beach, recently helped NASA scientists search for evidence of life in the barren, arid, sun-scorched soil of … Southern California.

Hammond and the NASA team recently were at the California State University Desert Studies Center in Zzyzx off Interstate 15.

The center, located 170 miles from the Cal State Fullerton campus, once was a Native-American campsite, an Army post and a health spa and now is part of the Bureau of Land Management. A consortium of CSU campuses and the National Park Service manages it. Cal State Fullerton handles administration, said Robert Fulton, the center’s resident manager since 1986. Fulton graduated from CSUF with a master’s degree in biology in 1984. He helped build the facility while he was a graduate student.

“Users of the center are as diverse as the habitats of this region,” he said. They come to study geology, paleontology, archaeology, volcanology, climatology, astronomy, the desert’s plant and animal life and the natural history of the area. We are a full-service field station with classrooms, a laboratory, satellite internet service, repair shops and food and housing facilities that help support our users.”

During their recent visit, about three dozen science teachers from around the country assisted the NASA scientists. They ranged over the Cima volcanic field and other widely disparate areas of the Mojave Desert as practice for detecting signs of life on Mars.

The project, coordinated through NASA’s Spaceward Bound program, had the scientists and teachers studying the insides of ancient lava tubes. A lava tube is formed when a volcano erupts and the lava on the top and sides of a flow cool and harden while the lava below continues to flow until it drains out the other end.

“We climbed to the top of the lava field, about six to 10 feet of basalt on the desert floor,” Hammond said. “As we walked, we would come across holes in the rock. That is where the gas vented when the volcano erupted. Eventually, we came to a larger hole, and it had a chain-and-metal ladder going down inside. We climbed down, and it was a large, long cave.”

Lava tubes, which are scorched of all life when erupting, “aren’t hospitable for life, but we searched for life in the tube, and we found it,” he said, enthusiastically. “We took samples to the lab and saw how many colonies of bacteria grew.”

That kind of information is essential when looking for life on Mars, the scientists said.

“We have been doing field expeditions to Mars-like environments for years,” said Chris McKay, leader of the team and a planetary scientist with Ames Research Center. Ames, at the Moffett Field location in California, is the base for Spaceward Bound.

“We’re bringing the teachers so they can see and participate in the exploration of these extreme environments,” McKay said. “The teachers then become part of the research team.”

The Desert Studies Center hosts courses for students from throughout the CSU system and other educational institutions worldwide, a variety of meetings, workshops and symposia, and continuing education courses in a variety of topics from astronomy to zoology, Fulton said.

“The Mojave Desert’s geological and biological diversity and rich cultural history offer hands-on learning that reinforces lessons learned in the classroom,” he said. “Such ‘real world’ experiences can bring a new dimension to the understanding students have of their subject matter, and often stimulates interest in future career paths.”
Back to Top