LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK - Residents of Tehama County would likely be surprised to find out that no place on Earth has a landscape more similar to Mars than Lassen Volcanic National Park.
At least that is what NASA researchers think, and that is why astrobiologists - with the help of four Red Bluff Union High School students - have installed high-tech instruments in the park in an effort to learn more about the planet in their "Mission to Mars" project.
"It was a great experience to have these renowned NASA scientists come up here. Why not get local students involved?" said Steve Zachary, the park's education specialist.
So "the only kids in school who like science," Lauren Phillips joked, seized the opportunity to become astrobiology interns and official National Park Service volunteers. They are juniors Lauren Litwiler, Chris Henzie, Vanessa Crandell, and Phillips.
The 106,000-acre park reaches up to 8,500 feet in elevation and receives more than 500 inches of snow each winter.
NASA researchers have theories that the gullies on Mars were formed by running water from melting snow, and they have several questions about past snowpacks and solar caps on Mars and how they were formed.
"They can use Lassen as an outdoor laboratory to maybe answer some of those questions," Zachary said.
Lassen's glaciated bowls of deep snow, volcanic landscape, and abundant areas of snow algae make the ideal conditions NASA needs to perform its research.
NASA began researching in the park in the fall of 2005, but local students were only involved for the first time this spring. In September, the students helped NASA astrobiologist Jennifer Heldmann reinstall expensive equipment in two places in the park, at 8,400 feet and 7,100 feet.
The instruments, although pricey high-tech NASA research materials, look like poles, bottle caps, and upside-down buckets.
But inconspicuously placed on the poles are data loggers and sensors that collect and record snow melt, temperature, movement, moisture data, and more. There is also a camera that has a battery powerful enough to last through the winter and is programmed to take a photo every day at noon. "This is really cool stuff here going on right in our backyard," Zachary said.
Katie Harris, a Regional Occupational Program (ROP) teacher at the high school, came up with the idea of getting the students involved. She supervises them and organizes trips to visit Lassen about once a month. Once snow falls, the interns will have to snowshoe to the site that isn't buried to make sure the instruments are still in place, take photos, and monitor the snow algae.
Snow algae without snow is a blue/green dust not visible to the naked eye, Zachary said. But snow melt causes the algae to "swim" from the ground to the top of the snow, where ultraviolet rays make it look red, like Kool-Aid spilled on the snow, he said.
Part of the research will include taking core samples of the snow to monitor how the algae migrates.
The algae is also nicknamed "watermelon algae" because it supposedly has a sweet taste, but Zachary said he has never taken a bite of the red snow because the algae is also supposedly a diuretic.
Researchers are also studying the park's hydrothermal areas, or giant clay pots filled with a liquid "basically like boiling battery acid," Zachary said. There are theories that the organisms that live inside the liquid are similar to organisms that live in the hydrothermal areas on other planets and moons. NASA is performing research around the world, including Chile, Australia, and Death Valley, to study the geology, meteorology, and biology of Mars. But no project is the same as the one in Lassen, Zachary said. Something so unique, so worldly, and so close is what drew Harris into the project and getting the students involved.
The straight-A science students earn community service hours that will count toward work experience should they apply for a government job. All four of them said this experience will show up on their resumes and help them reach their science-related career goals.
"But even if I don't have a science career, this is still fun," Henzie said, "and a good excuse to visit a beautiful place."
The interns are planning a presentation for the faculty about the research in Lassen. They are also planning a Web site, and they have led a hike in Lassen to teach Italian foreign exchange students about the project.
Zachary said the students are lucky to be involved in the project and to learn more about the park, which was established in 1916 after the eruption of Lassen Peak.
In its relatively short history, the park has become a learning center and Mars laboratory. Schools from more than 30 counties in the state visit the park each year, and the Department of Water Resources has monitored snow in the location for many years, as the snow melt provides the state with water.
"Lassen is a very important watershed and a very important water monitoring system for the state of California, and now for NASA, too," Zachary said