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Mercyhurst nets grant to map Venus quadrangle

Monday, March 30, 2015

Nick Lang, Ph.D.

Mercyhurst University geologist Nick Lang, Ph.D., has landed a $250,000 grant from NASA to create a geologic map illustrating the distribution of geologic materials and landforms on a section of the planet Venus.

Lang will serve as principal investigator on the three-year project and will be supported by colleague Bradley Thomson, Ph.D., senior research scientist at Boston University.

One result of the 1989 NASA Magellan mission to Venus was the creation of a Venus-wide mapping program to determine the planet’s geologic history. The program divided the planet into 62 quadrangles that would be geologically mapped at a scale of 1:5,000,000.  Lang and his students will use radar imagery from the Magellan mission to record their data and create the map, which will involve exploring the topography, volcanos, lava flows and other geologic materials. The resultant map will be published by the United States Geological Survey.

In the past 25 years, most of the quadrangles have been mapped, Lang said; his marks one of the last seven and is named after the Maori goddess of fire – Mahuea Tholus. The quadrangle covers more than 7 million square kilometers, an area roughly the size of Australia.

The mapping will provide an authentic hands-on research opportunity for six Mercyhurst students, two in each of the next three summers, who will be paid for their efforts. In addition, the grant provides funds for travel that will allow the students to present their findings at a conference, another exceptional real-world experience, Lang said.

“All geologic investigations begin with a geologic map, so this is classic work for students in that it trains them to think as physical scientists,” he said.

Prior to their latest grant, NASA awarded Lang and Thomson $100,000 to study clusters of small volcanos on Venus, the planet most like Earth in terms of mass and density, but at 450 degrees C (842 degrees F) and a surface pressure 100 times greater than Earth’s, vastly dissimilar in surface conditions as well as in its topographic relief.

The combined projects will help scientists better understand Earth’s closest celestial neighbor. “We may not colonize or pull resources from Venus, but in understanding Venus, we can better understand our own planet and its place in the solar system,”  Lang said.