News and Updates

09/02/2015

Mars apparently lost much of its atmosphere early in life, according to research using data from Arizona State University instruments.

Mars was not always the arid Red Planet that we know today. Billions of years ago it was a world with watery environments — but how and why did it change?

A new analysis of the largest known deposit of carbonate minerals on Mars helps limit the range of possible answers to that question.

The Martian atmosphere currently is cold and thin — about 1 percent of Earth's — and almost entirely carbon dioxide. Yet abundant evidence in the form of meandering valley networks suggests that long ago it had flowing rivers that would require both a warmer and denser atmosphere than today. Where did that atmosphere go?

Carbon dioxide gas can be pulled out of the Martian air and buried in the ground by chemical reactions that form carbonate minerals. Once, many scientists expected to find large deposits of carbonates holding much of Mars' original atmosphere. Instead, instruments on space missions over the past 20 years have detected only small amounts of carbonates spread widely plus a few localized deposits.

The instruments searching for Martian carbonate minerals include the mineral-detecting Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter and the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. THEMIS' strength lies in measuring and mapping the physical properties of the Martian surface.

Both instruments were designed by Philip Christensen, Regents' Professor of geological sciences in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration. TES fell silent when NASA lost contact with Mars Global Surveyor in 2006, but THEMIS remains in operation today.

"We designed these instruments to investigate Martian geologic history, including its atmosphere," Christensen said. "It's rewarding to see data from all these instruments on many spacecraft coming together to produce these results."

Other instruments involved in the search include the mineral-mapping Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars and two telescopic cameras on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Big, but not big enough

By far the largest known carbonate-rich deposit on Mars covers an area at least the size of Delaware, and maybe as large as Arizona, in a location called Nili Fossae. But its quantity of carbonate minerals comes up short for what's needed to produce a thick atmosphere, according to a new paper just published online in the journal Geology.

The paper's lead author is Christopher Edwards, a former graduate student of Christensen's. He is now with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. Both TES and THEMIS contributed to the work, he said.

"The Thermal Emission Spectrometer told us how much Nili has of several kinds of minerals, especially carbonates," Edwards noted.

And, he added, "THEMIS played an essential complementary role by showing the physical nature of the rock units at Nili. Were they impact-shattered small rocks and soil? Were they fractured and cemented rocks? Or dunes? THEMIS data let us differentiate these units by composition."

Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is Edwards' co-author. She said Nili doesn't measure up to what's needed. "The biggest carbonate deposit on Mars has, at most, twice as much carbon within it as the current Mars atmosphere.

"Even if you combined all known carbon reservoirs together," she explained, "it is still nowhere near enough to sequester the thick atmosphere that has been proposed for the time when there were rivers flowing on the Martian surface."

Edwards and Ehlmann estimate that Nili's carbonate inventory, in fact, falls too short by at least a factor of 35 times. Given the level of detail in orbital surveys, the team thinks it highly unlikely that other large deposits have been overlooked.

Atmosphere going, going, gone

So where did the thick ancient atmosphere go?

Scientists are looking at two possible explanations. One is that Mars had a much denser atmosphere during its flowing-rivers period, and then lost most of it to outer space from the top of the atmosphere, rather than into minerals and rocks. NASA's Curiosity Mars rover mission has found evidence for ancient top-of-atmosphere loss, but uncertainty remains just how long ago this happened. NASA's MAVEN orbiter, examining rates of change in the outer atmosphere of Mars since late 2014, may help reduce the uncertainty.

An alternative explanation, favored by Edwards and Ehlmann, is that the original Martian atmosphere had already lost most of its carbon dioxide by the era of rivers and valleys.

"Maybe the atmosphere wasn't so thick by the time the valley networks formed," Edwards suggested. "Instead of Mars that was wet and warm, maybe it was cold and wet with an atmosphere that had already thinned."

How warm would it need to have been for the valleys to form? It wouldn't take much, Edwards said.

"In most locations, you could have had snow and ice instead of rain. You just have to nudge above the freezing point to get water to thaw and flow occasionally, and that doesn't require very much atmosphere."

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

Written by Robert Burnham

08/31/2015

A mission to the moon is tough to top, but Arizona State University’s space program has plenty of stars in its eyes.

Peering into the alien ocean beneath one of Jupiter’s moons, mapping minerals on an asteroid for a rock-sampling mission, and building cameras for a future mission to Mars are all being worked on right now.

And there are bigger visions dancing in the minds of ASU’s space team.

Jim Bell is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the deputy principal investigator of the LunaH-Map CubeSat mission to the moon, and director of the NewSpace Initiative at ASU.

“Our rocket ride to space for our (LunaH-Map) mission will be the first launch on the new Space Launch System,” Bell said, referring to the immense megarocket NASA is building. It will be a billion-dollar beefed-up Saturn Five capable of ferrying 77 tons of cargo and people to asteroids, the moon and eventually Mars.

In the next few years, Bell also expects to be planning and building cameras for the 2020 Mars Rover, a skill at which he is a top hand, having delivered more than 150,000 images from the Spirit and Curiosity Mars rovers.

The 2020 mission goal is to find interesting rock and soil samples that tell the history of Mars and cache them for pickup later. The 2020 mission won’t bring the caches back; a future mission will do that.

“I hope in a decade we’re talking about that future mission (to pick up the caches) actually happening,” Bell said. “In order to find out if there is or was life on Mars, it’s very difficult to make the measurements there in any convincing way. That’s why we have to bring the stuff back.”

Phil Christensen is the director of the Mars Space Flight Facility in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and a Regents' Professor of geological sciences. He is looking forward both to helping choose the spot to collect rocks and soil from an asteroid, and hunting for warm water on an icy Jovian moon.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission lifts off next year. The spacecraft will travel for three years to reach an asteroid named Bennu that is the size of an Egyptian pyramid. It will touch the surface of the asteroid three times with an arm, grabbing (hopefully) up to 4 pounds of rock, then fly back to Earth and drop the sample capsule down to the Utah desert in 2023.

Christensen was the designer and instrument scientist on one of the mission’s five instruments: the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer, or OTES. It’s the first space instrument built entirely on the Arizona State University campus.

“We’re going to get up to this asteroid, and people are going to be surprised at what we find,” Christensen said.

It's not the only asteroid action at SESE. A team is looking to mitigate the risk of landing on asteroids — often appearing as piles of rubble loosely held together — by building its own "patch of asteroid" inside of a small, spinning satellite. The project is called the Asteroid Origins Satellite, or AOSAT I; Jekan Thanga, an assistant professor in SESE, and Erik Asphaug, a planetary scientist and professor at ASU, are the the engineering principal investigator and science principal investigator, respectively. A CubeSat launch is planned for January 2017.

As for Christensen, he’s envious of the scientists who sent the probe to Pluto. “That was stunningly fun,” he said. However, fun of his own is coming.

He is the lead for an instrument going along on NASA’s mission to one of Jupiter’s moons. The Europa mission — it doesn’t have an official name yet — will launch around 2022 and look for an ocean hidden beneath Europa's icy crust. The Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) will act as a heat detector, scanning the surface of Europa at high resolution for warm spots where the ice is thin.

“Europa will be a lot of fun because we don’t know what we’re going to find,” Christensen said.

Bell has great hopes for the NewSpace Initiative, which matches ASU scientists and students with private space companies to solve problems. In a decade, he hopes such strong relationships with key players will exist that ASU will be able to devote significant resources on campus to interact with them, working on science as a sidelight in conjunction with figuring out how to deliver a payload, for instance.

“There’s ASU West, there’s ASU Poly,” Bell said. “Why not ASU Space?”

Linda Elkins-Tanton, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, sees the school leading academic-corporate relationships in the field.

“SESE is moving toward defining a new integrated team for designing space instruments to answer leading-edge science questions about the planets and space,” she said.

“We have a unique opportunity and drive to do so, since we have the scientists and engineers working and innovating together. We’ll be at the forefront of the new university-private partnerships for space. … We’ve got an awful lot ahead of us.”

Written by Scott Seckel

08/27/2015

Only 30 institutions in the United States can build spacecraft. Only seven build interplanetary spacecraft that leave Earth’s orbit.

Arizona State University is one of them.

ASU’s space program is in elite company. And this week’s CubeSat mission announcement adds to the university’s stellar resume: It will be the first time ASU will lead an interplanetary science expedition.

It’s not the university’s first outing by a long shot, however.

ASU has played roles in 25 missions to eight planets, three asteroids, two moons and the sun.

The School of Earth and Space Exploration was created in 2006. As an institution however, ASU’s space program started much longer ago. This is the story of how a traditional geology program merged with the astronomy side of the physics department and grew into a powerhouse that builds spacecraft.

Rocks and fighter jocks

ASU's space exploration origins lie in the quest to send men to the moon in the 1960s. Ron Greeley, one of the founders of planetary geology, was working at NASA, helping select landing sites for the Apollo missions and assisting in geologic training for astronauts.

Back in the Apollo days, science was incidental to missions. Engineers – who just wanted to put boots on the moon – frequently clashed with scientists, who wanted to do at least a few things as long as we were going all that way.

One famous story illustrating the rift centered on a geologist who suggested a rock hammer be included in an astronaut’s tool bag. “But we took one of those on the last mission!” an engineer exploded.

Early astronauts tended to be fighter jocks who weren’t much interested in rocks either. Greeley succeeded in educating them to be more sophisticated than simply describing rocks as big or little, and how to differentiate between an interesting rock and a more prosaic sample.

“He was trying to get them to think about the geology and the rocks and what to look for when they got to the moon,” said Phil Christensen, a Regents Professor of geological sciences in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration. “If you listen to the transcripts of those astronauts, Ron and others who trained them did a fantastic job. There were a few (astronauts) who were classic test pilots, Navy guys on an adventure and, oh, I picked up a few rocks. Most of them did a good job.”

In 1977, Greeley was hired at ASU and focused his research on data from early robotic NASA missions. He received a number of honors during his career, from an asteroid named for him (30785 Greeley) in 1988 to numerous NASA awards.

From rocks to gadgets

If Greeley was the father of ASU’s space program, Christensen is the founder of what the program has become.

Back in 1981, Greeley hired Christensen as a young postdoc who was starting to get involved in space missions. Christensen won a big NASA grant to put an instrument on one of the Mars orbiters.

He's since become a Regents Professor (top tenured faculty who have made significant contributions to their field) and is the director of the Mars Space Flight Facility in SESE.

Greeley was a brilliant field geologist and planetary scientist, but he wasn’t an instrument guy, Christensen said.

“Ron was a pioneer in looking at the data that came back from these probes, looking at images of the moon and Mars and analyzing them, thinking about them,” he said. “He had no interest in building the instruments, building the cameras, building the spectrometers. … He was on the team, he had access to the data, he was a leader in the field, but he was mostly looking at data that existed and doing the usual science. That’s what ASU did. They didn’t build anything.”

And when Christensen won a huge contract to build an instrument in the early 1980s, hardly anyone jumped for joy. In fact, the reaction was nervousness and wondering where to put them.

Christensen asked an associate dean for office space.

“He said, “Well, there’s a couple of filing cabinets you can have.’ They just didn’t get it. We had this 10, 20 million dollar contract. It was the biggest contract ASU had ever done. They had no idea how to do it. They had no idea how to deal with an aerospace company. So to go from someone offering me two file cabinets to (the current space program and state-of-the-art facilities) … there’s been a lot of changes at this university. It’s been really amazing to watch this grow.”Jim Bell is a professor in SESE, the deputy principal investigator of the LunaH-Map CubeSat mission, and director of the NewSpace Initiative at ASU.

The latter is a program that connects students and faculty doing space-related work with outside entities doing the same thing. They range “from SpaceX to a couple of teenagers in a garage,” Bell said. “Where do they need our help? Can you do a mission for 1 percent of the cost of a big NASA mission?” (They don’t know the answer to that yet.)

Until now, ASU’s space program has revolved around making instruments that are snapped up by NASA. ASU faculty have been involved with all of NASA’s robotic missions.

“NASA knows us scientifically, but also from an engineering standpoint,” said Bell, who has built several cameras currently on Mars or in space.

And that is because of Christensen and Greeley.

“Those two guys were part of the bedrock foundation of the NASA work here at ASU,” Bell said.
How to woo NASA

In the early 1980s, NASA picked the University of Arizona to run a Mars mission. That university asked Christensen if he could build an instrument for it.

At the same time, defense contractor Raytheon shut down the Santa Barbara facility where Christensen had been working for ASU. Three or four of his colleagues became available. He thought if they came in, and ASU helped out, an instrument could be built at ASU. The instrument they wanted was very similar to one they had already built.

“It was a perfect storm,” Christensen said. “We were one instrument that was part of a bigger project. It wasn’t a huge risk to NASA to pick the UofA to run this mission and one of the instruments will be built at ASU. It was very similar to what we’d built before. … It was fortuitous that everything came together just right.”

They worked their tails off for five years.

“This was a one-shot deal,” Christensen said. “Reputation works both ways. If we screw this up, they’re never going to talk to ASU again. Fifteen people on this project took that really seriously. Not just their careers; ASU had spent a lot of money on this building and these facilities. There was a lot riding on us succeeding. People took a lot of pride in this succeeding. And it did.”

The campus where spacecraft are built

ASU had no place to build instruments or spacecraft when Christensen landed at the university in the early 1980s.

“Now we can build a NASA flight-quality instrument in this building,” he said. “Ten years ago we would have laughed: ‘We can’t do that. We don’t have the facilities, the people, the credibility.’ But we’ve done it. And now because of that, people are coming to me to build them instruments for Europa and other missions. Jim Bell can say we can build and test cameras here. We have new faculty coming in. Ten years from now there will be several people building instruments in this building. ASU will eventually win a Discovery-class mission.”

NASA’s Discovery missions are low-cost missions within the solar system with narrow focus. (Cost is relative in space. Discovery missions still cost what an average person would consider a vast sum, but they’re cheap compared with anything involving people being present.)

“A NASA mission is 90 percent about the process,” Christensen said. “How do you do it? How do you make it work? All things you have to do, all the people working together, keeping them together, keeping them from killing each other – to me that’s half the fun. … Within NASA, like a lot of other places, it’s all about reputation. Can you do it? Once you can, that’s a huge step. Suddenly you’re building more, and people come because of that. It sort of mushrooms.”

And the university’s physical investment in its space program has come a long way from two battered filing cabinets.

The 300,000-square-foot Interdisciplinary Science & Technology Building IV (or ISTB4, in local parlance) opened in 2012. It boasts labs, clean rooms, offices, high bays, a 250-seat auditorium and one of two mission operations centers on campus.

“My colleagues at any other institution come here and they’re jealous,” Christensen said. Last week a Jet Propulsion Lab delegation met with Christensen at the space building. They were jealous, too.

“It takes money to make money,” Christensen said. “You build a facility like this, it pays for itself. NASA does not want you building stuff out of spit and baling wire. When they come here and see this, they say, ‘You guys are for real.’ ”

Incidentally, 40 countries can build spacecraft, but only four can build interplanetary spacecraft. That puts ASU ahead of most countries in that aspect.

The clean rooms in the ASU space building are about the size of a small high school gym.

“That’s where we’ll build the (LunaH-Map) spacecraft,” Bell said.

It has the usual desks, monitors and chairs. What isn’t usual are the two vacuum chambers, one the size of a packing crate and the other about the size of a Volkswagen bus. They’re used to simulate space conditions. The lab team can crank all the oxygen out of the chamber, drop the temperature down to absolute zero (minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit), and see how what they’ve built stands up to space conditions.

“You turn it into outer space,” Bell said. “It’s pretty rare for a college campus (to be able to test instruments in that environment). Only a handful of campuses around the country have that capability. Typically you only find that in NASA centers and big aerospace companies.”

Working together beating things up

Space system engineer Jekan Thanga came to ASU two years ago, attracted by the school and the space program. He specializes in robots, artificial evolution, exploration of extreme environments, and CubeSats, the small spacecraft like the one ASU is sending to the moon. (He is the chief engineer on the project.)

The institute’s collaborative nature drew Thanga here. It’s not a conventional aerospace environment. A scientist can walk down the hall, tell an engineer like Thanga he needs to get data from somewhere really nasty and inaccessible, and the engineer can figure out how to make a machine that will go there, survive and get the data home.

“To the engineering world, it’s a radical departure,” Thanga said. “There is determination here.”

Thanga and his team spend a lot of time in the clean rooms. They have put machines inside the vacuum chambers, thrown in a bunch of dust and rocks, and cranked them up to see how they fared. (If you were in put it, your eyeballs would pop, the blood in your veins would boil, and eventually you’d boil away. Outer space is a tough place.)

It’s not uncommon to come in to the clean rooms at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and find grad students working on projects. About 15 to 20 people are working on all aspects of design and development at any given time.
The cutting edge of space exploration

It’s a far cry from the ’60s, when engineers fought scientists. Now they are in the same building (pictured left), unseparated by distance or bureaucratic walls.

“The cutting edge of space exploration is that it’s not good enough to just tell somebody to go build a camera and show up and use it later,” Bell said. “You really have to have your goals in mind while that instrument is on paper. You really have to dive in and become an optics expert. I’ve got to work with optics experts and electrical engineers and all that because I want to make a certain measurement to a certain level of accuracy in a certain environment.

“The more I can partner with people who understand the engineering and the guts of the electronics, the better my experiments will be. Building those people into the department that is my home at the university is just incredibly efficient and wonderful.”
Mars rocks

Some 40 years after Greeley’s time, NASA comes to ASU’s door.

“When you do things well – really, really well – people notice,” Christensen said. “It’s not just me. ‘Oh, ASU can build those instruments.’ And that flows over to Jim and Craig (Hardgrove, principal investigator on the lunar CubeSat mission) and Erik (Asphaug, working on how to perform a CAT scan on a comet) and Linda (Elkins-Tanton, school director). We’ve built ASU’s reputation.”

The Mars Rover helped a lot too, he said.

“Being world leaders in something as visible as exploring Mars got a lot of attention to ASU that leveraged a lot of things going on here now,” Christensen said. “A lot of science is fabulous but, I’m sorry, landing on Mars is not the same as discovering a new type of plastic for Coke bottles; OK, great. Landing on Mars gets you on the cover of magazines.”

Coming Thursday: What's next for ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration.

A Mars rover replica at ASU. The university has played roles in 25 missions to eight planets, three asteroids, two moons and the sun.
Photo by: ASU

Written by Scott Seckel

08/26/2015

Associate professor Steven Semken has been chosen as a Provost’s Teaching Academy Fellow.

It’s the first day of classes at Arizona State University. You are a first-year professor. Your goal: to be that valued instructor who meets each individual’s needs. 

No small challenge for teachers with ASU’s enrollment and diversity at record levels in this year’s incoming student body. New faculty need to connect with learners who range from eager to half awake, 17 to 40-plus, confident to seeking, local to international, and first-generation to business professional. 

To help support new faculty as they begin teaching, ASU will launch a program devised by 12 inaugural Teaching Fellows: the new Provost’s Teaching Academy. 

“The ASU faculty offers a nearly unlimited pool of talent to support our junior professors,” said Deb Clarke, vice provost for academic personnel. “The academy’s teaching fellows are some of the most accomplished of our faculty members, at the cutting edge as teachers and mentors. We’re fortunate to be able to draw on their expertise to advance ASU’s commitment to excellence in teaching” 

This fall the fellows will focus on working with new junior faculty members and developing a number of 90-minute instructional modules on effective teaching and learning techniques, which will be implemented for the 2016-2017 academic year.  

Students in this Gen Y, or Millennial, cohort are very different as a group from previous generations. That means that instructional and learning strategies need to be modified to ensure that this new generation of students has the opportunity to learn, develop necessary critical-thinking and problem-solving skills and stay engaged.

As the program progresses, fellows will also mentor faculty members in areas such as balancing research and teaching, teaching technology-enhanced courses, using social media to promote learning, using classroom learning assessment techniques, and designing effective test questions.

“Topics were selected based on a survey sent out to all non-tenured faculty at the university, asking what information might have boosted their success and skills as teachers when they first arrived on campus,” Clarke said. Among those topics highlighted: being sensitive to diversity and inclusion, and teaching controversial subjects.

“The academy is going to help both teachers and ASU students,” said Teaching Fellow Mary Niemczyk. “I think faculty members will also enjoy their jobs more by learning what we can teach them about engaging with students, and that in turn can have a positive impact on student retention and graduation rates.”

New faculty come to ASU in command of the knowledge and skills inherent to their disciplines, but not all arrive with prior experience in teaching their own courses, and fewer have received any systematic, research-based training in teaching, according to Teaching Fellow Steve Semken.

“When and where I started, the only resources available to me were copies of lecture notes and a few ‘war stories’ from my more senior colleagues,” Semken said. “I’m happy to be involved in a program that promotes effective, evidence-based teaching and helps new faculty build pedagogical knowledge to complement their research expertise.”

The 12 selected for the academy include:

Tamiko Azuma, associate professor and director of the Attention, Memory and Language Lab in the in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science in the College of Health Solutions. Her research interests center on memory and language processing in healthy monolingual and bilingual speakers, military veterans and adults with traumatic brain injury. 

Karen Bruhn, principal lecturer with Barrett, The Honors College at ASU. Her research interests are in religious studies and interdisciplinary pedagogy, and she teaches the interdisciplinary first-year seminar, “The Human Event,” at Barrett.

Stanlie James, professor of African and African American Studies with a joint appointment in the Women and Gender Studies program in the School of Social Transformation. Her research includes women’s international human rights and Black feminisms. She has lectured widely both nationally and internationally and is a recipient of the ASU Commission on the Status of Women's Outstanding Achievement and Contribution Award.

Erik Johnston, associate professor and director of the Center for Policy Informatics in the School of Public Affairs. His research interests include understanding the dynamics of policy decisions for building collaborations in civic, business and academic contexts, the influence of central-remote office arrangements, complex systems methodology, communication, quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Barbara Lafford, professor of Spanish in the School of International Letters and Cultures. She has published and given workshops nationally and internationally in sociolinguistics, second-language acquisition, computer-assisted language learning, and languages for specific purposes/experiential learning.

Bertha Manninen, associate professor of philosophy in the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Her scholarly interests include applied ethics, biomedical ethics, normative and meta-ethics, philosophy of religion, social and political philosophy.

Pamela Marshall, associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Her research ranges from the study of cellular response, mathematical modeling and gene networks to science pedagogy, learning communities and the way students learn science. 

Mary Niemczyk, associate professor and chair of the aviation programs in The Polytechnic School, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Her research focuses on improving instructional and learning strategies to enhance the performance of individuals in complex, ill-defined environments, such as aviation.

Wilhelmina Savenye, professor of educational technology in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She has published widely about instructional design and evaluation of technology-based learning systems. Her work has been conducted in settings as diverse as public schools, museums, botanical gardens, zoos, universities, corporations and with the U.S. Army.

Steven Semken, associate professor of geology and geoscience education in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Semken has led teachers' workshops and taught for 27 years with the Dine (Tribal) College, U.S. Air Force Academy and ASU. In 2014, he received the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Zebulon Pearce Teaching Award.

Jean Stutz, professor of science and math in the College of Letters and Sciences. An award-winning teacher and student adviser, her research centers on human activities and the diversity and functioning of plants and microbes in arid, riparian and urban ecosystems, as well as innovative teaching and learning.

Max Underwood, President’s Professor and architect in the Design School in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. His scholarship and creative activities interweave the art of teaching with the realities of exemplary design and architectural practice. He received three national American Institute of Architects awards for his teaching innovations.

Written by Peggy Coulombe and Joe Kullman
 
 
08/25/2015

A spacecraft the size of a shoebox with Arizona origins will soon be orbiting our nearest neighbor to create a map of water-ice on the Moon.

The NASA-selected CubeSat will be designed, built, and operated at Arizona State University, and is one piece of the agency’s larger mission to fully characterize the water content at the lunar South Pole in preparation for exploration, resource utilization, and improved understanding of the Moon’s geologic history.

The spacecraft, called the Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper, or “LunaH-Map” for short, will produce the most detailed map to-date of the Moon’s water deposits, unveiling new details about the depth and distribution of the ice that has been tentatively identified from previous missions. Confirming and mapping those deposits in detail will help NASA understand how much water might be available and will help inform NASA’s strategy for sending humans farther into the solar system.

The ability to search for useful assets, such as hydrogen, can potentially enable astronauts to manufacture fuel and other provisions needed to sustain a crew for a journey to Mars, reducing the amount of fuel and weight that NASA would need to transport from Earth.

This is the third major space project for which NASA has selected ASU in the past year, and it is the first planetary science spacecraft mission that will be led by ASU. It represents a major achievement for planetary geologist Craig Hardgrove, the School of Earth and Space Exploration postdoctoral research associate who proposed the mission and will be overseeing it as principal investigator.

“All of our previous NASA mission involvement has consisted of us having instruments on other people’s missions. This is ASU’s first interplanetary mission – this is OUR mission, our chance to trail blaze,” said Jim Bell, professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and mission deputy principal investigator.

“It’s a privilege to be leading this fantastic team, and I want to make sure we do it right and deliver on our promise to NASA,” said Hardgrove.

CubeSats are part of a growing movement that is revolutionizing space exploration because of their small size and low cost of construction and operation, effectively opening the door to early career scientists, providing them an opportunity to operate missions of their own.

“How much good science can we do with these small missions? We don’t know the answer, but we will be one of the first groups to try to answer the question,” said Bell.

A university affair
Although this is one of NASA’s first forays into deep space science experiments with CubeSats, the technology isn’t new to NASA and universities, which have recognized their value and have been building them for years.

“CubeSats are a model for a new way to gain access to space, but they are also a model for how to teach students how to design, build, operate, and troubleshoot a real space mission,” said Bell, who also directs ASU’s NewSpace Initiative. “Students want to know how a spacecraft works, but not just from a PowerPoint presentation. This is their opportunity to build something. Break it. Fix it. Test it again. Launch it. Operate it. And that is the beauty of CubeSats; they provide students with the experience of going through the complete mission process.”

LunaH-Map will be designed, built, and tested on ASU’s Tempe campus, in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and several other partners supplying space-qualified hardware and services. LunaH-Map leverages technology from at least six different small commercial space companies with expert knowledge and experience in building spacecraft hardware including, Radiation Monitoring Devices, Busek, KinetX, NASA’s Ames Research Center, Catholic University of America, and Planetary Resources.

Overseeing all aspects of the spacecraft engineering is the mission’s Chief Engineer and Co-Investigator, Jekan Thanga, an Assistant Professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. Much of the design and development of LunaH-Map will be done in his Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTREx) Laboratory, and clean rooms in ASU’s state-of-the-art Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4, which with their glass windows offer an opportunity for visitors to watch the spacecraft being built, tested, and operated.

In total, there will be 15-20 ASU professionals, including students, working on all aspects of the design, development, testing, and delivery of the spacecraft.

“Within the United States there only about seven institutions that are doing interplanetary CubeSat missions,” said Thanga. “ASU brings together scientists and engineers to work on radical new concepts together, from the start. This innovative collaboration strategy leads to greater science return, and more creativity and capability.”

Other Co-Investigators from ASU include Professor Mark Robinson and Associate Research Professor Paul Scowen from the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Small, low-cost, but sophisticated
LunaH-Map, along with a number of other deep-space CubeSats, are candidates to fly to lunar orbit on Exploration Mission-1, the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will enable astronauts in the Orion spacecraft to travel deeper into the solar system. NASA will provide several CubeSat missions spots on the maiden SLS mission.

LunaH-Map is a 6U (“6 unit”) CubeSat. One “unit” is a cube measuring 4.7 inches on a side; LunaH-Map strings six of these CubeSat building blocks together and weighs as much as a small child (about 30 pounds).

But just because it is small, doesn’t mean it is less sophisticated – in this case, as with our Smartphones, size doesn’t compromise capabilities. LunaH-Map’s design allows for all the necessary sensors and instruments to be securely packaged inside. A Jack-in-the-box like deployer releases the spacecraft and panels pop out like little wings.

Once it arrives at the Moon, the tiny spacecraft will embark on a 60-day science mission, consisting of 141 science orbits, using a suite of science instruments.

Its main instrument is a neutron detector designed to sense the presence of hydrogen by measuring the energies of neutrons that have interacted with and subsequently leaked back out of the material in the top meter of the lunar surface.

“We know from previous missions there is an increased abundance of hydrogen at the lunar poles. But we don’t know how much or exactly where,” said Hardgrove. “NASA has funded three different CubeSats to learn more: Lunar IceCube, Lunar FLASHLIGHT, and LunaH-Map. They all look for water in different ways, and provide different types of information.”

As LunaH-Map flies over the lunar South Pole at a very low altitude, it counts the energies of neutrons that have leaked out of the lunar surface. The energy distribution of the neutrons that hit the detectors tells us about the amount of hydrogen that’s buried in the top meter of lunar soil.

LunaH-Map will map the hydrogen content of the entire South Pole of the Moon, including within permanently shadowed regions at high resolution. LunaH-Map will measure the bulk hydrogen content, up to a meter beneath the lunar surface, while the instruments on both Lunar IceCube and FLASHLIGHT will tell us about the very top few microns. LunaH-Map will create the highest resolution maps of regional near-surface (top-meter) water-ice distribution across the entire South Pole of the Moon.

“Science is a human endeavor, and part of that is knowing each other and trusting each other. And when it comes to a NASA mission and tax payer dollars to do exploration, you got to have the credentials. You have to be trusted, you need to have proven yourself, you need to show that you can make it happen and you won’t fail. And we’ve got a history now where that’s the case,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Photo by Ken Fagan

Written by Nikki Cassis

08/21/2015

Editor's note: This story is part of our back-to-school spotlight on notable incoming students. The series will run during the first two weeks of the fall semester. Read our other profiles here.

You could say Eric Laughlin was starstruck during his search for a university.

It might be more accurate, however, to say he was space-struck.

The student from Burbank, California, was wrapping up his community college studies at Pasadena City College and wanted to find somewhere he could pursue his passion for astronomy and physics.

The public California schools he looked into didn’t have what he was searching for.

“None of them really did – I was surprised,” he said. “The UC system is so large, I thought there would be more opportunity. Especially since you have JPL (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) there and the space center up in northern California.”

A friend who was also ready to transfer suggested they look at Arizona State University because she knew people there. Laughlin discovered ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, and he was sold.

“Once I found the program at ASU, I was dead-set on coming over here,” said Laughlin, who will have a concentration in astrophysics and already has a JPL internship lined up for next summer.

Astronomy was never a family interest in his home growing up. His father works in construction, his mother in the medical-malpractice field. When he graduates, he’ll be the first person in his family to finish a college degree other than his uncle.

Laughlin had looked at other fields of study such as law and biology, “but they never spoke to me as much like this does,” he said. He joined the astronomy club at Pasadena City College, toured JPL — “It was like going to Disneyland” — and went to other space events, solidifying his love for the subject.

“I want to be able to put man on Mars,” he said. “I want to be able to take man outside our solar system — which is never going to happen — but it just seems really important.”

Laughlin moved to ASU at the start of the summer and has already taken his first ASU class, an Anthropology for Science and Mathematics course online. And his frequent drives from Tempe to Las Vegas, where his boyfriend moved recently, have presented star-laden skies the LA-area native isn’t used to.

“I’ve looked up at the sky and seen way more than I’ve ever seen before,” he said.

But it’s not just the science that has Laughlin excited about being at ASU. After attending small private schools growing up and then living at home during his community-college years, this is one student excited to jump into campus life.

“Probably because it’s a very big school, and a public school too, the population is a little more diverse,” he said of ASU. “That’s really appealing.”

Also appealing is finally living on his own, at age 23, in the Vista del Sol campus apartments.

“It’s like I’m living my own life — even though my parents are still helping me out,” he said.

In between jobs at the campus bookstore and at a Sephora in Gilbert, Laughlin has connected with other incoming students thanks to Devil 2 Devil, a social-networking site for incoming ASU students. He even organized a meetup for transfer students.

Though he admits he is going to miss the beach, the self-proclaimed foodie is excited to explore Arizona and already has gone tubing on the Salt River — his verdict: “awesome.”

Oh, and that friend who suggested they look into ASU? She ended up not coming here, but Laughlin thanks his lucky stars she pointed him this way.

Image: Astrophysics transfer student Eric Laughlin poses for a portrait outside the ASU bookstore at Arizona State University's Tempe campus on Aug. 17. Photo by: Deanna Dent/ASU News

Wirtten by Penny Walker

 

08/18/2015

Are your bones getting stronger or weaker? Right now, it’s hard to know. But a new test for detecting bone loss, being developed by Arizona State University and Mayo Clinic researchers, offers the possibility of near real-time monitoring of bone diseases. The technique, which measures changes in calcium isotope ratios, has passed an important hurdle by being tested on urine samples from NASA space shuttle astronauts.

Our bones are largely built of calcium, and the turnover of calcium can indicate the development of bone diseases such as osteoporosis and the cancer multiple myeloma. Geochemists have developed extremely accurate ways of measuring calcium isotope ratios, for example for the study of sea shell deposits in sedimentary rocks. Now a group of geochemists and biologists have worked with NASA to put these techniques together to develop a new, rapid test of bone health.

“It's a novel project in which we use geoscience techniques and concepts for biomedical research,” says lead researcher Ariel Anbar, President’s Professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The ASU team also includes Gwyneth Gordon and Steve Romaniello; collaborator Scott Smith works at NASA Johnson Space Center.

Using mass spectrometry, the relative ratios of the calcium isotopes 42Ca and 44Ca in bone can be discerned. The researchers found that lighter calcium isotopes, such as 42Ca, are absorbed from the blood into the bone during bone formation. Conversely, these light isotopes tend to be released into the bloodstream when bones break down. By measuring the ratios of the two isotopes in blood or urine scientists can calculate the rate of change of bone mass.

Anbar will be discussing this method at the Goldschmidt Conference in Prague, Czech Republic, August 16-21. He will also be recognized for being elected a Geochemistry Fellow by The Geochemical Society and The European Association of Geochemistry.

“The big advantage of these measurements is that they show what is happening in the bone, whereas traditional bone health measurements, such as DXA scans, show what has happened. This means that we can have a real near-time view of what is happening in the bone, rather than comparing before and after, when damage may have already been done,” explains Anbar.

“Our goal is that these measurements will allow us to see bone breakdown in osteoporosis, but also can show us the progress of certain that affect bone, such as multiple myeloma.”

The research was piloted in bed-bound subjects (who lose bone mass), but the best way for the researchers to test whether the system worked was in an ambient and less controlled population who are known to experience rapid bone loss. In space, because of zero gravity conditions, astronauts experience very rapid bone loss. Working with NASA, the researchers measured calcium isotope ratios in urine from 30 shuttle astronauts, before, during, and after the flights. This allowed them to confirm that the test worked at high sensitivity (NASA partly funded the research).

Joseph Skulan, a member of the research team who first proposed the idea, said: “We were able to confirm that Ca isotopes in the sample from the shuttle astronauts shifted as expected, meaning that they we could see in more or less real time the ongoing bone loss. We did this with simple urine samples, taken at various points during their flights.”

In a collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, the researchers have also looked at a group of 71 patients who either had multiple myeloma (bone cancer), or were at risk of multiple myeloma.

“What we see with cancer patients is exciting,” said Anbar. “Samples from patients with the most active cancer tended to have lighter Ca isotopes. This means that the tests could theoretically feed into decisions on whether or not to treat a patient, for example if a cancer was dormant or growing very slowly, and to assess the effectiveness of treatments.”

He continued: “At the moment, this is still a test which is in development, but we’ve shown the principle is sound and the potential profound. The advantage for this methodology is that the patient doesn’t have to come to the machine; the measurements can be done with a blood or urine test. And from a scientific point of view, we are delighted that we have the chance to combine geochemistry, biology, and space science to benefit patients.”

Commenting, Scott Parazynski, MD, former NASA astronaut, currently University Explorer and Professor at Arizona State University said:

“It’s tremendous to see a sophisticated geochemical assay being translated into what could become a really significant medical diagnostic tool. Physicians treating osteoporosis and other calcium disorders of bone, including multiple myeloma, have very few tools at their disposal to quickly determine whether the treatments they’re providing are actually making a difference. By using calcium isotope ratios, healthcare providers may be able to optimize therapies for these debilitating illnesses in the future.”

About the Goldschmidt Conference
The Goldschmidt Conference is the world’s most important geochemistry conference. Around 3000 delegates will attend the 25th Anniversary 2015 Goldschmidt conference in Prague (http://goldschmidt.info/2015/), from 16-21 August. The Goldschmidt Conference is co-sponsored by the Geochemical Society and the European Association of Geochemistry. Goldschmidt2016 takes place in Yokohama, Japan.

 

08/13/2015

One of the best ways to learn how our solar system evolved is to look to younger star systems in the early stages of development. Now, a team of astronomers has discovered a Jupiter-like planet within a young system that could serve as a decoder ring for understanding how planets formed around our sun.

The new planet, called 51 Eridani b, is the first exoplanet discovered by the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI). It is a million times fainter than its star and shows the strongest methane signature ever detected on an alien planet, which should yield additional clues as to how the planet formed.

The results are published in the current issue of Science.

A clear line of sight

GPI was designed specifically for discovering and analyzing faint, young planets orbiting bright stars by direct imaging. NASA's Kepler mission indirectly discovers planets by the loss of starlight when a planet blocks a star.

“To detect planets, Kepler sees their shadow; GPI sees their glow,” said Bruce Macintosh, professor at Stanford University who led the construction of GPI and now leads the survey.

To directly image planets, astronomers use adaptive optics to sharpen the image of a star, and then block out the starlight. Any remaining incoming light is then analyzed, the brightest spots indicating a possible planet.

After GPI was installed on the 8-meter Gemini South Telescope in Chile, the team set out to look for planets orbiting young stars. They’ve looked at almost a hundred stars so far.

“This is exactly the kind of planet we envisioned discovering when we designed GPI,” says James Graham, professor at UC Berkeley and Project Scientist for GPI.

A team from Arizona State University and University of Georgia led the development of the target sample for the 600-star survey.

“By targeting young stars, we can catch planets while they are hotter and brighter and can study how planets evolve over time,” says ASU astrophysicist Jennifer Patience, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and part of the GPI Exoplanet Survey Team.

As far as the cosmic clock is concerned, 51 Eridani (51 Eri) is young – only 20 million years old - and this is exactly what made the direct detection of the planet possible. When planets coalesce, material falling into the planet releases energy and heats it up. Over the next hundred million years they radiate that energy away, mostly as infrared light.

Once the astronomers zeroed in on the star, they blocked its light and spotted 51 Eri b orbiting a little farther away from its parent star than Saturn does from the sun. The light from the planet is very faint – more than three million times fainter than its star – but GPI can see it clearly. Observations revealed that it is roughly twice the mass of Jupiter. Other directly-imaged planets are five times the mass of Jupiter or more.

In addition to being the lowest-mass planet ever imaged, it’s also the coldest – 800 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas others are around 1,200 F – and features the strongest atmospheric methane signal on record. Previous Jupiter-like imaged planets have shown only faint traces of methane, far different from the heavy methane atmospheres of the gas giants in our solar system.

All of these characteristics, the researchers say, point to a planet that is very much what models suggest Jupiter was like in its infancy.

Of course, it’s not exactly like Jupiter. The planet is so young it still has a temperature of 800 Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead and similar to the temperature of Venus.

“Our analysis of the brightness of 51 Eri b at different colors immediately showed us that we were looking at something unique and exciting,” says Patience. She and her graduate students Abhi Rajan and Kim Ward-Duong led the comparison with atmospheres of other known imaged exoplanets and brown dwarfs (objects intermediate between stars and planets) to investigate the nature of 51 Eri b.

 

Simulated fly-by of the 51 Eridani star and planet system 

The key to the solar system?

In addition to expanding the universe of known planets, GPI will provide key clues as to how solar systems form. Astronomers believe that the gas giants in our solar system formed by building up a large core over a few million years and then pulling in a huge amount of hydrogen and other gases to form an atmosphere. But the Jupiter-like exoplanets that have so far been discovered are much hotter than models have predicted, hinting that they could have formed much faster as material collapses quickly to make a very hot planet. This is an important difference. The core-buildup process can also form rocky planets like the Earth; a fast and hot collapse might only make giant gaseous planets. 51 Eri b is young enough that it ‘remembers’ its formation.

Discovery image of the planet 51 Eridani b with the Gemini Planet Imager taken in the near-infrared light on December 18 2014. The bright central star has been mostly removed to enable the detection of the exoplanet one million times fainter.
Photo by: Julien Rameau (UdeM) and Christian Marois (NRC Herzberg)

08/11/2015

The ground level in portions of the metro Phoenix area is dropping at an annual rate of nearly two centimeters, or almost an inch a year, according to two Arizona State University scientists.

This is caused by the pumping of groundwater from subsurface aquifers, say ASU researchers.

Apache Junction, at the east end of the Valley, is seeing the fastest drop, followed by Sun City West, Peoria and the north Valley.

Although changes of a few centimeters a year may not seem substantial, when they continue for many years and over long distances they can have serious and expensive impacts. Structures such as the Central Arizona Project (CAP) and other canals, utility lines, water and gas mains, storm drains and sewers are most affected, while office buildings, apartments and homes can also become damaged as ground levels drop.

"Pumping groundwater alters the elevation of the land surface at different rates around the Valley," said ASU researcher Megan Miller. "This happens because the sedimentary basins in the Phoenix metropolitan area vary in thickness and properties."

Miller, a graduate student, and professor Manoochehr Shirzaei, both of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, work with synthetic aperture radar carried on Earth-orbiting spacecraft. Such radar can measure ground elevations to less than an inch over wide areas. By repeating the measurements over time, changes can be detected, tracked and mapped.

The elevation data they used for their study, which has just been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, come from 1992-1996 and 2003-2010.

"In parts of Chandler, Mesa, and Scottsdale, the ground level has risen in recent years," Miller said. "This is because we are storing the unused part of our water allotment in the ground." But she notes that this cannot be done everywhere, and it cannot undo much of the subsidence that has previously occurred.

"In areas where the land has subsided, the basin layers have become compacted. When water was pumped out, the pore spaces in the aquifers became empty, and the layers settled until the spaces were eliminated," Miller explained.

The water table — the height of the groundwater level — has increased during the period they studied, even where the surface elevation of the land has fallen, Miller said. The continued sinking of the surface is from pumping that occurred years ago.

The demand for water has remained relatively stable during this time, mainly due to the decline of agriculture in the Valley. Miller noted, "As more people have moved here, they have settled on land that previously grew crops, which use more water."

Because residential and industrial areas use less water per acre than agriculture, the population increase has been offset by the decrease in agricultural water use. The net result, Miller said, is that demand held fairly steady during the study period, but the source of demand has changed.

"Eventually," Miller said, if current supply and demand trends continue, "we will no longer have a surplus." Then, she said, "the water table will resume dropping."

Groundwater pumping has two main effects, one short-term, the other long. "The biggest short-term problem is earth fissuring, or cracks that develop and threaten structures and their foundations," Miller said. "Longer term, the changes in surface level can affect where floodwaters go, which could produce huge problems for the Valley."

A second long-term effect occurs, she adds, when groundwater withdrawals continue: The subsidence reduces the aquifer system's capacity to store water.

"We live in a desert, and our underground canteen is getting smaller."

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is a unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

Image: Pumping groundwater from aquifers underlying metropolitan Phoenix is changing ground levels all across the Valley of the Sun. The scale of change is color-coded in millimeters per year; 25 mm equals one inch.
Photo by: ASU

Written by Robert Burnham

08/10/2015

Arizona State University will lead a new National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center to pioneer advances in geotechnical engineering that promise solutions to some of the world’s biggest environmental and infrastructure development challenges.

The consortium of university, industry and government partners has been awarded $18.5 million to establish the Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics (CBBG) to expand the emerging field of biogeotechnical engineering.

CBBG’s researchers will focus on “nature-compatible” approaches to boosting the resiliency of civil infrastructure, improving the effectiveness of environmental protection and ecological restoration methods, and developing ways to make infrastructure construction and natural resource development operations more sustainable.

The center’s university partners are the Georgia Institute of Technology, New Mexico State University and the University of California, Davis. Engineers and scientists at those institutions will collaborate with ASU researchers to investigate the use of natural underground biological processes for engineering soil in ways that reduce construction costs while mitigating natural hazards and environmental degradation.

CBBG’s director is ASU Regents’ Professor Edward Kavazanjian. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Ira A. Fulton Professor of Geotechnical Engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

ASU is now one of only two universities in the country leading currently NSF-funded Engineering Research Centers.

“This is our second NSF Engineering Research Center award in about four years. This is very rare and it reflects our unique culture that supports the kinds of multi-investigator and multi-institution teams needed to tackle these exciting areas of research at the intersection of many engineering and science disciplines," said Kyle Squires, the Fulton Schools' interim dean.

“This center has emerged from an idea Ed Kavazanjian has been conceptualizing and promoting in his professional community for the past several years, and it is great to see it come to fruition," Squires said. "Solutions born from the center will change how we build on and in the earth, and educate a workforce capable of putting research into industry practice."

Melding nature and technology

CBBG's researchers will endeavor to either employ or emulate natural processes in developing innovative methods and technologies for engineering geotechnical systems.

“In billions of years of evolution, nature has come up with some very elegant solutions to the problems we want to solve,” Kavazanjian said. “By employing or mimicking these natural processes we should be able to devise some of our own elegant solutions.”

Much of CBBG’s work will concentrate on developing bio-based methods of strengthening soils as a way to produce more solid ground for building foundations and to prevent erosion that threatens human health, the environment and infrastructure systems.

Researchers, for instance, will explore the use of microbial organisms to help stabilize soils. Certain kinds of microbes produce an enzyme that can cause calcium carbonate to precipitate in porous soils, thereby hardening the ground, making it more resistant to erosion, and providing a stronger foundation for construction.

Calcium carbonate precipitation can also be used in lieu of Portland cement to stabilize pavement subgrades and to create “bio-bricks,” soil particles that are bound together into building blocks for infrastructure construction.

Innovations in soil stabilization

Other efforts will involve attempting to figure out how to equal the performance of trees in their natural ability to stabilize soil against erosion and to provide support against wind and other loads through their root systems.

“The best man-made soil-reinforcing elements and foundation systems we have developed are not as efficient as trees at stabilizing soil. We want to be able to design soil-reinforcement and foundation systems that work like tree root systems,” Kavazanjian said.

Researchers will also seek to devise technologies that match some of the subterranean earth-moving and stabilization capabilities of burrowing insects and small mammals.

“Ants are a hundred times more energy-efficient at tunneling than our current technology. They excavate very carefully and their tunnels almost never collapse,” Kavazanjian said. “If we could do what ants can do, we could make underground mining much safer.”

New methods of environmental restoration

Similarly, he said, if engineers could design a probe with sensor technology and guidance systems that effectively digs and tunnels through soil like a mole, it would significantly improve subsurface exploration and characterization.

Such an accomplishment would lead to construction of stronger and safer roadways, bridges, dams, power plants, pipelines and buildings, and more efficient and effective oil-drilling and mining operations.

“We want to reproduce the beneficial effects that biological and biogeochemical processes can achieve, accelerate them, and then employ them on larger scales,” he said.

Progress in biogeotechnical technologies and engineering could also lead to significant improvements in methods of cleaning up environmental contaminants and restoring land denuded by erosion or industrial-scale resource extraction.

Advances could also produce better ways to fortify structures and landscapes against the destructive forces of earthquakes, including methods for combating the soil liquefaction that results from strong earthquakes and can severely destabilize large swaths of land.

Collaborative efforts will achieve global reach

A range of expertise across engineering and science disciplines will be needed to better understand the nature of the biogeochemical processes on which the center’s work will focus. In addition to Fulton Schools of Engineering faculty members, ASU’s team includes researchers from the university’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, the School of Life Sciences and the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Environmental protection and restoration aspects of the research will be directed by Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and one of the center’s co-principal investigators.

“Being selected by NSF for the CBBG ERC is a game changer for civil engineering at ASU. It will showcase our leadership capabilities and our world-class faculty and programs,” said G. Edward Gibson, director of the School for Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

"I'm excited that we will be able to focus on an emerging area of geotechnical engineering in a transdisciplinary way, bringing together experts in an array of fields. Their collaborations will yield possibilities for significant advances in the sustainability of the world's built environments," Gibson said.

The potential global impacts of CBBG’s work has attracted more than a dozen companies to sign on to the center’s industrial affiliates program to lend support to the research.

In addition, 15 universities from around the world — including some in Europe, Asia and South America — are expected to collaborate with CBBG on research and educational programs.

A number of agencies that manage large public infrastructure systems — including the Arizona and New Mexico transportation departments, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Port of Los Angeles — have also agreed to collaborate with the center on research and field-testing.

Education outreach key to center's mission

The CBBG’s mission also extends to expanding education in geotechnical science and engineering, as well as promoting diversity within the profession.

The center’s deputy director, Claudia Zapata, an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, in collaboration with professor Wilhelmina Savenye in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, will oversee implementation of an education outreach and diversity program aimed at K-12 schools, community colleges and university undergraduates.

The program is to include development of geotechnical engineering educational material for undergraduate and graduate courses.

Mentoring, internship and professional development programs will be part of the center’s efforts to train a workforce equipped with the skills to put CBBG’s research into practice in industry.

Initial NSF funding that will support the new center for five years amounts to the nation’s largest single investment in geotechnical research, Kavazanjian said.

NSF support can be extended for a second five-year period, but after that time the center would be expected to become a self-supporting enterprise.

Read more about the center on the CBBG website.

Read more about the CBBG leadership team and faculty members who will have research roles, here.

Image: Arizona State University Regents' Professor Edward Kavazanjian (right) will direct the new National Science Foundation Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics. The center will provide opportunities to be involved in cutting-edge research for graduate students such as Abdullah Alsanad (at left), who is pursing a master's degree in geotechnical engineering.
Photo by: Jessica Hochreiter, ASU

Written by Sharon Keeler and Joe Kullman.