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High Resolution Topography of Kilbourne Hole, New Mexico

I’ve been making trips to do fieldwork for RISE projects at Kilbourne Hole since the summer of 2017. My contribution has been to provide high resolution topography data to the team using stereophotogrammetry or structure from motion (SfM) methods. Although you can collected more direct measurements of the terrain using LiDAR, I use a methodology that utilizes camera images and differential GPS. The images can be collected from any camera, and the physical dimensions of the subject can be retrieved as long as the parameters of the cameras (positions and angles) meet the requirements for SfM.

What’s the subject in the images? Our primary target is the geology, but at what scale are we interested? What features? And what is the science question we want to answer once we have all of the geometric and morphometric data? The answer is different for every person who goes out to study Kilbourne Hole. The very smallest scale of observations is of interest, such as the grain size of ash particles from the eruptions that created Kilbourne Hole. For others, it’s the layers of ash or stratigraphy of the deposits. My most recent interest is the layers of lava that the eruptions blasted through and time has covered up by thousands of years of sedimentary deposition. Others care about the general large-scale similarity of the terrain to a lunar crater, making it a unique planetary analog for testing the procedures of exploration in an unfamiliar environment on another planet or the Moon. My attempts have been to provide data at all of these scales, but this has resulted in various levels of ‘meh’ and success.

My most successful pursuit was the collection of image data from small unmanned aerial vehicles (sUAS) and the subsequent creation of digital elevation models (DEMs) and orthomosaics (simply geometrically well-constrained overhead imagery) at very high spatial resolution. My high resolution, I mean small cm-scale pixel size or ground sampling distance (GSD). In this case, every pixel is between 3 and 8 cm, depending on sUAS altitude. The large scale topography of Kilbourne Hole is already available from the USGS 3D Elevation Program, and it’s a great dataset with sub-meter detail available for large parts of the United States. When the RISE project started, we hadn’t yet discovered the 3DEP data or it might not yet have been available. So, our methodology was to pursue the use of sUAS and terrestrial LiDAR scanning (TLS) to provide the data. TLS is ‘bonkers’ high resolution, generally sub-cm resolution depending on the range distance. I can produce data of similar quality as TLS using SfM for limited areas, but certainly not at the speed, efficiency, and accuracy as TLS. The 3DEP LiDAR datasets are collected from an airplane, so the range from the target is substantially larger than TLS or SfM, and the efficiency and cost-effectiveness are fantastic. All of these datasets have exceptional advantages or qualities, but between the scales of 3DEP and ground-based TLS operations, sUAS fills a gap ideal for answering several science questions.

As I explain in my abstract for the upcoming presentation for the NASA Exploration Science Forum this summer, broader mapping was originally a goal in earlier stages of the RISE projects, but it was nearly phased out due to the large size of Kilbourne and the scope of the actual field activities was smaller. The utility of sUAS-derived data products was demonstrated during the 2023 RISE2 deployment, especially for derived map products for navigation and emerging science questions and themes, such as an analysis of block distribution and Afton basalt thickness. In the field, we realized not only was the entire circumference of Kilbourne Hole needed, but it was possible to obtain given a perfected sUAS concept of operations (CONOP). [You can tell where someone might work based on their use of acronyms.] One of the really cool things about the RISE projects has been meeting new people and graduate students, especially folks from the University of Texas El Paso. In this last field campaign in February 2024, my co-authors from UTEP and I “completed the circle,” acquiring high resolution sUAS imagery of the entire circumference of Kilbourne Hole.

Oblique view of Kilbourne Hole looking from the southeast showing the basic satellite image view (left) and with the high resolution sUAS DEM (right).

The region of interest that sUAS data covers is specifically for key science questions we have about the margins of Kilbourne Hole. The middle is mainly fluvial and lacustrine deposits, and the other parts are thickly mantled lava flows. Stay tuned for more details and progress reports on this work.

Lunar and Planetary Science Conference 2023

It was amazing to see everyone in person again this year at LPSC 2023. It was the first time I had been to a conference in person since the pandemic. Even though people wore masks and everything appeared to be relatively safe, still a number of people came down with a COVID infection. (To my knowledge, must cases were mild. Although I didn’t hear about anything serious, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t.)

I put a lot of work into two poster presentations of my own and contributed to others as well. Fieldwork in Hawaii yielded some pretty impressive results from an experiment that I designed, built and tested. Here’s a link to the abstract and some cool 360 degree panospheres inside the lava tubes at Mauna Loa!

Work on mapping fluvial systems on Alba Mons has progressed well and is probably coming to a close. I presented results from that study and preliminary results from Amphitrites Patera. Here’s a link to our abstract and a nice write up on PSI’s website.

Perspective view of a hill shade topographic model of Alba Mons, Mars looking from the northeast. A map of interpolated drainage density is projected. The darker the blue color, the higher the concentration of mapped valley networks. Hopefully publishing these results soon…

RISE2 Field Campaign Kilbourne Hole, NM 2022

RISE2 Field Campaign to Kilbourne Hole, NM 2021

Field Campaign in Iceland 2021

Capturing Aerial Images from UAVs in Iceland 2019

Science, Art and Engineering

My main function: analyze geospatial data on the computer. The data show images looking down at Earth and Mars and are interesting to look at: lava flows, sand dunes, river channels, mountains. These are valuable to science, but the patterns and abstractness have artistic value. Many people recognize this and celebrate this by contributing to The Art of Planetary Science Exhibition in Tucson, AZ. There were many submissions from almost a hundred artists, and I’m happy to be one this year in 2018. I carved a HiRISE DTM, my first completed 3D carve of topography. I’m happy with the way it turned out!

Description of Piece: A place on Mars in miniature Fissure and Channel Southeast of Olympus Mons. Carved by a homemade computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine; surface tone painted by hand. Image data were provided by The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera in orbit around Mars, which were processed into a digital terrain model by the HiRISE Science Team.

RIS4E Field Campaign Aden Volcanic Field, NM 2017

Iceland Field Campaign 2016

I have to admit: Flying an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) such as the Trimble UX5-HP is a lot easier than flying a kite over lava flows. We covered several square kilometers in no time with this bird! There were two location: the south of Iceland (the Laki lava flow) and in the north of Iceland (the Holuhraun lava flow). We worked with a great group of students in the field participating in the Keck Geology Consortium. They helped us run our mobile UAV airport! I’ll post more details about our field work and the student projects soon. For now, here are a few images of us doing our volcanological mapping. The data will result in orthoimage data at 1-4 cm per pixel, and digital terrain models at 10 cm per pixel!