Unearthed: The Borderland’s Hidden Gem

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KTSM) – We’re on a mission to find a gem called olivine.

Our treasure chest is Kilbourne Hole in Las Cruces, a sight best described by self-proclaimed naturalist David Etzold as “magnificent emptiness.”

It’s one of the few places in the country you can find olivine, also known as peridot.

Kilbourne Hole is one of the largest maar craters in the American Southwest. It measures almost two miles wide and 300 feet deep, and what you can see there now is what remains of volcanic activity that happened more than 20,000 years ago.

UTEP Geological Sciences Professor Libby Anthony has done more than 20 years of research at Kilbourne Hole. She said the mix of magma and steaming groundwater formed a massive explosion.

“You see a woo-hoom blast,” said Anthony. “That’s called a lateral blast. Preserved at Kilbourne Hole is the lateral blast of the volcanic explosion, which is what created Kilbourne Hole.”

Ejected from that explosion– olivine-bearing zenoliths or rocks.

“This beautiful green mineral orig at least 30 km below surface of the earth,” said Anthony. “It is an unusual mineral which is why it’s a collector’s item.”

In 2014, Kilbourne Hole became a protected national monument and could soon help unearth what’s beyond our planet.

“The rocks and the processes that form Kilbourne Hole are similar to what we may seen on Mars or the Moon,” said Jose Hurtado, Professor at the UTEP Dept. of Geological Sciences, “We’re lucky to have it in our backyard.”

Once the training ground for Apollo astronauts on past Moon missions, the maar crater will soon be the site of a N.A.S.A. projects called RIS4E. Hurtado will lead the research team.

“The idea behind our project is to study how we would explore the surfaces of other planets,” said Hurtado.

Hurtado said they’ll be testing tools and techniques for data collection.

UTEP student Jennifer Dixon currently uses drones to create 3D maps of the hole.

“That’s exciting because you get to walk in the footsteps that somebody maybe an astronaut would,” said Dixon. To feel what they would be feeling, look at what they would be looking at.”

Until that day comes, I returned to my mission for the day.

“Look for a rock, sort of like this. Laying on the surface,” said Etzold. “It’s going to have a ropey surface. Slight green tinge on parts of it and it’s going to feel very heavy, much heavier than the rocks around it.”

After searching high and low, I struck gold.

As a federally-protected site, you aren’t allowed to take the olivine home with you.

But Anthony said it should be okay if you take a few small grains of sand with you.