A map of Mars

Stripes on Mars

By Amanda Cairo

Few undergraduate students find their work referred to in Nature Magazine and Popular Science, but for Vandal alumnus Daisuke Kobayashi that dream became a reality.

“It was a happy surprise to see all the press interests,” says Kobayashi. “It proved that, with creative ideas and an inquiring mind, even undergraduate studies can yield notable outcomes.”

Now a geosciences graduate student at Penn State, Kobayashi co-authored an article with Ken Sprenke, University of Idaho professor of geophysics, environmental and planetary science, regarding research on Mars’ magnetic field or stripes on Mars. The article, “Lithospheric drift on early Mars: Evidence in the magnetic field” was recently published in Icarus, the leading international journal of solar system studies.

Sprenke, whose research interests include planetary and environmental geophysics, was surprised as Kobayashi began to get into the project and produce interesting research and results — focusing on separating out the geometry of points in the magnetic field.

“I was astounded by Daisuke’s performance once he got going,” says Sprenke. “It was intensive, one of the best undergraduate studies I’ve seen.”

Their research analyzed the geometry of the magnetic field on Mars, where they were able to show that the magnetic field of Mars is consistent with a hot spot origin. Since it was first detected in 1997 by satellite, research on the magnetic field — due to iron-bearing minerals permanently magnetized with alternating orientations — is in full stream. Geologists have differing opinions on how the Martian magnetic field was formed, either by hot spots or plate tectonics.

Sprenke says his research with Kobayashi shows the geometry matches up with hot spots, rather than plate tectonics — or shifting plates — by showing that the elongated anomalies in the Martian magnetic field form concentric small circles (called parallels of latitude) about two distinct north pole locations.

The discovery of hot spots, where volcanoes have formed far from plate boundaries such as in Yellowstone and Hawaii, revolutionized geological research on Earth in the 1960s. These hot spots start from the deep in the Earth’s mantle, rather than from plate interactions. While initial interpreters of Martian geology have pointed to plate tectonics, Sprenke and Kobayashi’s research says otherwise.

“With this research, we will be able to understand geology on Mars,” says Sprenke. “Nothing else on Mars looks like it was formed by plate tectonics.”

Kobayashi excelled not only in his research with Sprenke, but in all of his efforts at the University; he earned outstanding geology graduate of the year award and top prize in the College of Science Research Expo last spring.

Building on his research opportunities at Idaho, Kobayashi is now studying under the top volcanologist in the world, Peter LaFemina. His Vandal education and experience will provide the basis for his future endeavors for years to come.

“I was very fortunate to study geology at University of Idaho as it had great faculties and plenty of tangible geology around. In particular, I’ve learned a lot by working with a creative, experienced researcher, Dr. Sprenke," says Kobayashi. "I will ‘stay on Earth’ and study plate boundary deformation, but I’m sure my research experience gained in Idaho will make a big difference.”

Icarus article: www.nature.com/news/2010/100625/full/news.2010.312.html