A crew drilling on the Big Island of Hawaii has struck scientific gold after accidentally breaking into a molten lava chamber underground for the first time.
Magma - the molten rock that is the central ingredient in the evolution of planets, has never been found in its natural habitat before now.
The chance discovery far beneath the Earth's surface gives scientists an unprecedented opportunity to study the important substance.
As scientists, we've hypothesized about the nature and behavior of magma in literally countless studies, but before now the real thing has never been found or been physically investigated,' Professor Bruce Marsh from The Johns Hopkins University said.
Magma reaches temperatures of more than 1,000C underground before it is ejected from the earth in volcanoes in lava spouts.
'Once magma erupts, it begins cooling unusually quickly and it loses any gases that it may contain, so it really is a different animal,' Professor Marsh said.
'We've never seen, until now, the real animal in its natural habitat. And it's not going anywhere: it's caged, so to speak.'
The chamber also contains a highly unusual type called 'dacite', which is not common in the geology of Hawaii. It is believed to be made by, in effect, distilling basalt, the material which makes up the floor of the ocean.
Professor Marsh, nicknamed the 'Magma PI,' has spent his career investigating the processes by which magma is forced from the bowels of the planet to the surface and creates the geologic features - continents, mountains, valleys - among which we live.
He is collaborating on the find with William Teplow, a consultant to Nevada-based Ormat Technologies. They announced the discovery yesterday at the 2008 meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
The company discovered the magma during drilling operations at its Puna Geothermal Venture power plant in October 2005.
They hit a chamber of the magma about a mile and a half down while drilling an injection well. The substance quickly rose about 20 feet up into the drill hole before becoming glasslike as it cooled. Ormat workers redrilled the area several times, with the same result.
The company has installed a permanent seismic and ground monitoring network to provide early warning of any impending volcanic activity for the power plant and