Navajo Tech Students Look At Lava Tubes with NASA

Nov 15th, 2010 | By | Category: 22-2: Crossing Borders, Winter 2010, Tribal College News

By Tina Deschenie

“To be one of the first – we Native students doing a project like this, our college being one of a few to use this laser technology that is still in its infancy – that’s what stands out in my mind,” says Oga John, 31, a Computer-Aided Drafting (CAD) major at Navajo Technical College (NTC, Crownpoint, AZ).

In April 2010, staff and five students, including John, took part in a lava tube scanning project along with visiting professionals from NASA Langley, University of New Mexico and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Together, they scanned the interior of a lava tube at El Malpais, near Grants, NM, using a Faro Photo 120 scanner. The 3-D images were then stitched together from eight different scans and aligned using targeting spheres, says Scott Halliday, CAD program director.

Lava tubes, such as those at El Malpais, form on Earth after a volcanic eruption creates underground rivers of lava that flow to the surface. After the rivers dry out, a long hole in the ground is left behind.

“It was amazing to see what a lava tube is,” says Vernon Kaye, 29, a firstyear Auto CAD student, who helped set up spheres inside the tube. Kaye, who is from Shiprock, NM, is interested in pursuing mechanical engineering after he completes his studies at NTC.

“It was a whole different world down there,” says John, who hails from Nazlini, AZ. “I have been empowered as a student here, through opportunities like internships, by attending conferences and hearing motivational speakers, and by using my math skills in the CAD program.” She expects to earn a CAD degree by 2011 and is debating whether she should stay on to take up Digital Manufacturing next (NTC will soon offer classes in that area.)

The NTC CAD program, together with NASA Langley, undertook the lava tube scanning research project to assist NASA in its future possible exploration of the Moon and Mars. By scanning lava tubes on Earth, and by identifying the details in the resulting images and models, the college is contributing to NASA’s research. Halliday says that, next, students will determine how to best present the data to NASA. Funding for the Lava Scanning Project and related work is provided by NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Program (MUREP).

For several summers, Halliday has also accompanied NTC students on various internships at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.

For more information and to view a video of the lava tube scanning project, visit

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