News and Updates


NASA has selected five finalists for further study during the next year as a first step in choosing one or two new robotic missions for flight opportunities as early as 2020.

One of the concepts selected for further study is from Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. The proposed mission to asteroid Psyche would reveal insights about planet-formation processes and the early days of the solar system, and would also afford the opportunity to explore, for the first time ever, a world made not of rock or ice, but of iron.

Each investigation team will receive $3 million to conduct concept design studies and analyses. After a detailed review and evaluation of the concept studies, NASA will make the final selection by September 2016 for continued development leading to launch. Any selected mission will cost approximately $500 million, not including launch vehicle funding or the cost of post-launch operations.

In November 2014, proposals for spaceflight investigations were requested for NASA’s Discovery Program, a series of relatively low-cost, focused science probes aimed at exploring the solar system. A panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers reviewed 27 submissions.

The concept selected will become the 13th mission in the agency’s Discovery program.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, hopes 13 will be her lucky number.

“Every world explored so far has a surface of ice, rock or gas. Now imagine a world made of iron and nickel. How alien it must be! But deep below Earth’s surface, unreachable to us, is a metal core resembling asteroid Psyche. A mission to this metal world would be the equivalent to a mission deep below the surface of any of the terrestrial planets to examine their cores,” said Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator for the proposed mission.

The target asteroid, 16 Psyche, resides in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Discovered in 1852, it is large (about 250 kilometers, or 155 miles, in diameter), very dense and made almost entirely of iron-nickel metal.

If selected, the Psyche spacecraft would orbit the huge metal asteroid for about 12 months, studying characteristics such as topography, gravity and magnetic field and surface features. The craft will be carrying a suite of instruments, including magnetometer, imager, gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.

The proposal includes ASU colleagues Erik Asphaug and Jim Bell, both professors in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and is in partnership with JPL and Space Systems Loral.

The other planetary missions selected to pursue concept design studies are:

• Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI)

• The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission (VERITAS)

• Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam)

• Lucy

For more information about the finalists, visit:

Photo: An artist's concept of a spacecraft studying the huge metal asteroid Psyche from orbit. NASA has selected this mission concept, proposed by a team at ASU, as a finalist for a Discovery mission.
Photo by: JPL/Corby Waste

Written by Nikki Cassis.

Join us for the first Earth and Space Open House of the Fall semester.  This month we celebrate the success of New Horizons, NASA's groundbreaking mission to Pluto and beyond. SESE's Dr. Steven Desch will deliver a FREE public lecture on "New Horizons at Pluto and Charon: Our Exploration of the Kuiper Belt"

Time: 7-10 p.m.

Location: ASU Tempe campus ISTB4
The FREE lecture begins at 8:15 p.m. in the Marston Exploration Theater.
Before and after the lecture, planetarium shows (in 3-D) will be shown at 7:15 p.m. and 9:15 p.m., also in the Marston Exploration Theater. (Seating is first-come, first served, and the theater will be cleared after each event.)
Telescopes will be set up for sky viewing (weather permitting) from 8-10 p.m. next to the James Turrell Skyscape art installation (follow signs).
As usual, there will be many exciting demonstrations and activities in the state-of-the-art ISTB4 Gallery of Scientific Exploration by experts in astrobiology, geology, cosmology, planetary science, and more! Stop by the Ron Greeley Center for Planetary Studies table for your FREE New Horizons poster.
Please spread the word to your family, friends, and anyone else interested in learning more about Earth and space exploration. All are welcome!
Earth & Space Open House is brought to you by the School of Earth & Space Exploration, Altair Rocketry, AstroDevils: ASU Astronomy Club, Center for Meteorite Studies (CMS), GeoClub, NASA Space Grant, Society of Physics Students (SPS), Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), and many other organizations at Arizona State University whose members volunteer their time each month to make this wonderful event possible.

And mark your calendars: Open Houses for the rest of the academic year will be held on October 23, 2015; February 5, 2016; and April 8, 2016.

Earth & Space Open House website (with maps of ASU and parking)
Hope see you there! 

Arizona State University is one of the 27 organizations from across the United States selected by NASA to take the next steps in negotiating its role in the new strategic approach to more effectively engage learners of all ages on NASA science education programs and activities.

Selectee activities will support Earth science, astrophysics, planetary science and heliophysics.

In its proposal, ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration leveraged its proud history of developing and running NASA education programs and its research strengths and expertise in the space sciences.

“We at ASU are so excited to work with NASA on helping their incredible science reach more schools and more students. We’re deeply committed to reaching K-12 students with the science we work on every day, so this opportunity to work with NASA and broaden the reach to the whole country is thrilling to us,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. She will be leading ASU’s efforts.

Negotiations for specific monetary awards now will begin and final awards are expected to be made by the end of this year. Agreement awards can run up to five years, with an additional five-year option.

“With the nation’s emphasis on science and engineering, critical thinking, and project-based learning, this is the time to really deploy all the excitement and fascination that NASA missions and science have to offer. NASA’s work is a tremendous platform for reaching and inspiring the next generation,” said Elkins-Tanton.

With a portfolio of approximately 100 science missions, NASA's commitment to education places special emphasis on increasing the effectiveness, sustainability and efficient utilization of SMD science discoveries and learning experiences. Goals also include enabling STEM education, improving U.S. scientific literacy, advancing national educational goals, and leveraging science activities through partnerships.

NASA’s education programs help inspire and support students from elementary school to college level, and beyond. The agency has provided lifelong learners around the globe the information to become science and tech-literate, a key asset being the inspiration NASA missions provide.

To view a list of the 27 selected organizations, visit:



“Nobody wants little data.”

Frank Timmes would know. The data he works with is big. Really big.

Timmes is an astrophysicist and professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. In his research exploring the origins of our universe, Timmes sets data calculations in motion that use and produce terabytes upon terabytes of data.

Timmes and other ASU researchers, in disciplines ranging from health to business to the humanities, often work with data sets so large they are known simply as big data. Big data is defined by four characteristics: volume, variety, velocity and veracity.

"Variety" describes the many forms of data. Every organization, from hospitals to supermarkets to airports to schools, generates different types of data. As individuals we are also generating data in the form of social-media updates, web surfing and location data. And new forms of data are always being created.

"Velocity" is how fast data is being generated. As technology advances, we are generating data at an accelerating pace.

"Veracity" describes the accuracy and completeness of the data.

"Volume" is the amount of data, measured in bytes. One byte is the amount of data used to encode a single letter of text. When personal computers debuted in the 1970s they boasted 48 kilobytes (48,000 bytes) of memory. In 2008, Google was estimated to generate 20 petabytes of data each day. That’s 20 quadrillion (20,000,000,000,000,000) bytes, the equivalent of 400 million filing cabinets' worth of text — and that was seven years ago.

How much data counts as big data? It’s relative. The easiest way to recognize big data, Timmes said, is if it’s too big for your current machine.

“Normal data today would have been considered big data 20 years ago; 20 years from now our big data will seem miniscule,” he said.

Let them eat (big data) cake

As we grow increasingly cozy with technology, big data has crept into our lives and lexicon. Devices and computers track our clicks, location, social-media activity, health, purchases and more (so much more) and along the way generate bits (and bytes) of data.

To make use of so much data, researchers rely on high-performance computing centers such as ASU Research Computing. The facility offers 100-gigabit Internet2 access and multi-petabyte storage capacity, including large-scale in-memory analytics, as well as the staff to help researchers use it.

Scientists and researchers in all fields now have the ability to create, analyze and access data in new ways and at new scales. In some cases big data used in research is so massive that it isn’t practical or cost-effective to store the data for future use. It might be kept for a few years and then deleted.

“Is every piece of data that you can put in digital format worth storing? Oftentimes not,” Timmes said.

Instead of saving petabytes upon petabytes of data, researchers make their work repeatable by others by passing on the process of data collection and analysis.

“Don’t give me the cake. Give me the recipe and let me make the cake,” Timmes said.

The power of personalization

Like researchers, retailers are also using big data for innovation.

Michael Goul is professor and associate dean for research in ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business. He studies the application of big data in predictive analytics, such as when eBay and Amazon casually suggest additional products based on your activity and purchase history.

“People come into eBay, and they don’t realize that pretty much everyone is in an experiment,” Goul said. “They test their ideas out on people live, in the system. They’re using big data for innovation.”

Goul sees exciting potential for big data to shape the experience of personalization. He said a product recommendation is just the tip of the iceberg. A future shopping experience might allow you to virtually visit a designer showroom in Paris, for example, and try on items from the latest clothing line.

Another innovation Goul is tracking uses predictive analysis in health care. This could offer suggestions for additional testing or services based on someone’s health history and other information, for example.

“We can gain so much if we can leverage technology in ways that can personalize it,” Goul said.

An interdisciplinary defense

Tailored online interactions are enabled by vast quantities of personal data. But just because you share data with one retailer doesn’t mean you wish to share it with everyone. Recent breaches at companies ranging from Target to Ashley Madison and even our federal government illustrate how difficult it can be to keep sensitive data safe.

Jamie Winterton guides cybersecurity strategy at ASU’s Global Security Initiative (GSI) and says that our online actions are often tracked without our knowledge by third parties.

“We shed so much data as we go through life, whether through personal devices or interactions. The more little pieces that are lying around, the easier it is for someone to piece together a complete picture of you,” Winterton said.

GSI recently launched the new Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics (CDF), which draws on ASU’s interdisciplinary leadership and GSI’s position as a university-wide entity to advance new understandings of security. CDF also develops partnerships with both private industry and government to improve their collective security.

Protecting data is an endless game of leapfrog, with each new attack inviting a more sophisticated defense, which hackers quickly work to break down. Creative data defenses aren’t based in computer science alone, Winterton said. They must be interdisciplinary.

No page left undigitized

Michael Simeone also works across disciplines. He is an assistant research professor at ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research and director of the Nexus Lab for Digital Humanities. Simeone is involved in projects that range from delving into 18th-century cartography to modeling changes in economic thought leadership over the past 40 years.

Technology and big data capabilities are allowing new insights into humanities questions. In addition, the humanities bring a critical point of view to the table as society grapples with our increasingly digital identity.

“Everyone assumes that just because people are under a particular age they're tech savvy. It's just not true. Learning a particular piece of software and having an important set of critical mechanisms in your mind about how to encounter data and statistics as they relate to your everyday life, social situation, culture and history is a really important skill set to have, especially as the data scales up. The digital humanities is at a nice place to intervene in this mix,” said Simeone.

As with other disciplines, the onset of a data deluge in the humanities is calling researchers back to the drawing board to rethink traditional research methodologies.

“There are some growing pains right now. Just as the data is getting bigger, the methodologies have to be thought through responsibly. If you’re used to studying 20 books and suddenly you can study 1 million books, it posits some very clear methodological challenges,” Simeone said.

The most powerful tool we have

As more of our lives are mirrored in data sets, there is enormous potential for improving quality of life. But Goul reflects that as we generate ever more data at increasing speeds we are also increasing the speed at which we make decisions based on that data.

“Sometimes it’s good to have a little soaking time and to think, ‘Is this something I really want to do?’” he said.

We will inevitably continue to live in a world where technology is the norm and not the exception. At the end of the day, however, we are not status updates, purchase histories and steps taken; we are human beings, undigitized and in the flesh. That is why Timmes asserts that, despite our advanced technology and bytes upon bytes of data, the most powerful tool anyone has is “your brain driving your fingertips on the keyboard.”

Written by Kelsey Wharton, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.



In August, 2010, researchers using images from LRO's Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) reported the discovery of 14 cliffs known as "lobate scarps" on the Moon's surface. These features are like stair-steps in the landscape formed when crustal materials are pushed together, break and are thrust upward along a fault forming a cliff.

Thanks to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), thousands of young, lobate thrust fault scarps have been revealed. These globally distributed faults have emerged as the most common tectonic landform on the Moon. An analysis of the orientations of these small scarps yielded a surprising result: the faults created as the Moon shrinks are being influenced by an unexpected source—gravitational tidal forces from Earth.

A paper describing this research is published in the October issue of the journal Geology.

"The discovery of so many previously undetected tectonic features as our LROC high-resolution image coverage continues to grow is truly remarkable," said Mark Robinson of Arizona State University, coauthor and LROC principal investigator. "Early on in the mission we suspected that tidal forces played a role in the formation of tectonic features, but we did not have enough coverage to make any conclusive statements. Now that we have NAC images with appropriate lighting for more than half of the moon, structural patterns are starting to come into focus."

Read the full story here

Image: Thousands of young, lobate thrust fault scarps have been revealed in Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera images (LROC). Lobate scarps like the one shown here are like stair-steps in the landscape formed when crustal materials are pushed together, break and are thrust upward along a fault forming a cliff. Cooling of the still hot lunar interior is causing the Moon to shrink, but the pattern of orientations of the scarps indicate that tidal forces are contributing to the formation of the young faults.
Credits: NASA/LRO


Early-career scientists face many hurdles. Harmony Colella, a SESE Postdoctoral Research Fellow, knows all about these challenges. She and colleagues authored an article for EoS title "Helping Early-Career Researchers Succeed." It discusses programs that can help early-career researchers advance their careers. Read the full story here



Julie Mitchell, a SESE student studying Geological Sciences, is the recipient of the Amelia Earhart Fellowship, which is sponsored by Zonta International and specifically for women in aerospace/exploration graduate studies.

Mitchell’s career goal is to accelerate the establishment of a permanent human presence in space by bridging the gap between engineering and science. Permanent settlement of humans in space will strongly depend on utilization of water sources on nearby bodies. Therefore, she is investigating water sources on the moon and Mars. Since adding salt depresses water’s freezing point, active water flows on the cold Martian surface would likely be composed of brine; on the other hand, salt deposits on Mars indicate where bodies of water once stood. One of her focuses is therefore on brine and salt deposition on Mars. In addition, she is looking for potential ice deposition in shadow regions of the moon. Her efforts will help mission planners to maximize both the in-situ resources available for astronauts and the scientific value of future surface exploration efforts.

Mitchell works as university outreach volunteer, Mars Student Imaging Program mentor, science public speaker and lecturer.

The Zonta International Amelia Earhart Fellowships were established in 1938 in honor of Amelia Earhart, famed pilot and member of the Zonta Clubs of Boston and New York. The Fellowships are awarded annually to women pursuing Ph.D./doctoral degrees in aerospace-related sciences or aerospace-related engineering. The award is competed at an international level and provides $10K for one year.



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


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


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