News and Updates


Habitability and what it means, and why we think Mars could have had it

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL, also known as the Curiosity rover), was sent to determine if Mars was ever hospitable to life. During the 16 months that it has spent sampling the rocks, soils, and layers of sedimentary rocks in Gale crater, Curiosity has been piecing together the puzzle of Mars’ past and present habitability potential. The latest findings indicate that the now barren surface of the planet was indeed capable of supporting life in the past. Analyses of Martian sediment samples show all the hallmarks of a habitable zone.

A series of six papers in this week’s edition of the journal Science describe the main results from Curiosity’s campaign at Yellowknife Bay, the lowest elevation region on the floor of Gale crater. Key results include the discovery of abundant water-bearing clay minerals and other mineral, chemical, and geologic findings related to a past warmer, wetter climate regime. Each of the papers was produced by a large team, including authors from Arizona State University.

“Shortly after we landed, Curiosity found evidence that liquid water had flowed across the surface long ago in Gale crater,” says Jim Bell, professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, and an author on four of the papers. “These new results, however, come from the first drilling activities ever performed on Mars, and they show that in addition to surface water, there was likely an active groundwater system in Gale crater that significantly weathered ancient rocks and minerals.” Bell plays a leading role in the targeting and interpretation of images obtained by Curiosity’s science cameras, especially the Mast Camera (Mastcam) investigation, for which he serves as deputy principal investigator.

Curiosity’s state-of-the-art imaging system, comprised of 17 cameras, is only one part of the sophisticated suite of science instruments the rover relies on to acquire its information. Many ASU professors, researchers, and students from the School of Earth and Space Exploration, as well as alumni, are involved with the rover’s instruments. In addition to Bell, MSL Science Team members at ASU include: Jack Farmer (professor), Meenakshi Wadhwa (professor), Alberto Behar (research professor), Lauren Edgar (postdoctoral research associate), Craig Hardgrove (postdoctoral research associate), Austin Godber (research staff member), and Danika Wellington (graduate student).

“We’ve got a great team at ASU working to help make these results from Curiosity possible,” says Bell. “Using our new image processing, laboratory, and mission operations facilities, students, staff, and faculty are getting some real hands-on training and experience on an active and exciting NASA planetary exploration mission.”

ASU professor Jack Farmer, a science team member for the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument, is an author on two of the papers, both of which address the potential for past habitability at Yellowknife Bay and consider the potential of the environments represented for preserving fossil biosignatures.

The other papers review the current assessment and potential for organic building blocks (carbon-containing compounds) on Mars as well as the inorganic elements making up rocks and soils, and the radiation environment. Each of the papers focuses on a broad theme of the MSL mission: geologic history, geochemistry, habitability, and the current surface climate and radiation environment.

The results in these papers are all major new pieces to the puzzle of habitability on Mars, and these results will certainly influence upcoming decisions about the next generation of orbiters, landers, and rovers to be sent to Mars by NASA and other space agencies. In the meantime, Curiosity is getting closer to the base of Mt. Sharp, an ancient mound of layered sedimentary rocks, where the team will begin the next phase of their mission–climbing up through sediments spanning much of the ancient history of the Red Planet.

“Finding past environments on Mars that could have sustained life as we know it, is an overarching goal of the mission. There is a lot of synergy between the results from each of these papers, with clear connections to understanding the past and present habitability of Mars. From what we’ve seen, the sediments in Yellowknife Bay record important features consistent with an ancient habitable environment – evidence for liquid water, elemental building blocks needed by life and potential energy sources,” says Farmer.

As promising as these initial results are, the excitement continues to mount for scientists looking forward to many additional discoveries ahead.

(Nikki Cassis)


Frank Timmes, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, joins an elite group of physicists, having been elected this fall as a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS).

Timmes is an astrophysicist interested in the universe's evolving composition and its implications for life in the universe. His current research focuses on nuclear astrophysics, especially synthesis of the periodic table. Present efforts include the physics and modeling of reactive fluid flows in stellar environments, supernovae and explosions of all sorts, cosmic chemical evolution, and gamma-ray emission from radioactive isotopes. This research involves analytical models, desktop calculations, large-scale parallel computations, comparison with existing high-quality observations or experiments, and creating testable predictions.

He was elected as a Fellow for “his leadership (both in computation and physics) in and contributions to nuclear astrophysics throughout all aspects of stellar explosions of both types of supernovae from progenitors, explosions and nucleosynthetic yield dispersal in the universe”.

Timmes joins a distinguished line of APS Fellows at Arizona State University. SESE faculty elected as Fellows also includes Regents’ Professor Sumner Starrfield.

The American Physical Society (APS) works to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy and international activities. APS represents 48,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories and industry in the United States and throughout the world. Being elected a Fellow is a significant honor, as only 0.5 percent of the membership of each division can receive this distinction.



Life as we know it on Earth would not be possible without water.

We use it to keep our lawns green, to wash our cars and to cool off on a hot summer day. We use it to cook, clean and quench our thirst.

Our bodies use it to carry out many of the complex chemical reactions necessary to sustaining life.

But the desert by definition has a limited water supply. Look around. There are no towering redwoods or lush tropical plants. The plants are sparse and the ground baked by the sun.

So how does Phoenix, the 12th largest metro area in the U.S., support the water needs of its 4.2 million residents? And what would happen if the water ran out?

GLG 108 Water Planet, a class created by professors Kelin Whipple and Arjun Heimsath in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, answers these questions and dives more deeply into how climate change could affect the world’s already strained water supply.

“Water is precious, limited and can be severely impacted by both climate change and humans,” Heimsath said.

The introductory level course is broken into a two-day-a-week lecture and an online lab.

During the first half of the semester, students learn the basic science behind how the climate system, hydrologic cycle and watersheds work.

The second half of the semester is spent examining the management and resource allocation problems that society faces today. This includes droughts, groundwater contamination, water wars and the effects of global climate change on future water supply.

“I honestly can't think of many more important classes for Arizona or other Southwest U.S. natives,” Whipple said. “This is a time of growing population and ongoing climate change that is likely to make fairly severe drought the ‘new normal’ while we face increased water demand.”

The class satisfies quantitative natural science (SQ) course requirements but has no prerequisites. The use of mathematics in the class is restricted to algebra with more emphasis being placed on how science is done and data collected.

“We try to keep lectures fun and lively and always include some discussion breaks,” Whipple said.

Students who take the class gain a better appreciation of where their water comes from and what they can do to conserve it, Heimsath said.

“I love seeing the light bulbs go off in student’s heads,” he said. “Their expressions change from being puzzled to being delighted at their newfound understanding of a cool and important topic.”

Image: The Central Arizona Project (CAP) is a 336 mi (541 km) diversion canal in Arizona (courtesy Wikipedia)

Kristen Hwang



In an article posted yesterday on AZCentral by Anne Ryman, SESE professor Erik Asphaug offers insight into the celestial phenomenon comet ISON.

As we are sitting down to enjoy our turkey dinner on Thursday, comet ISON will be sling-shotting around the Sun. Comets are dark, icy objects that originate in the outer solar system and travel in long orbits around the sun.

Discovered by Russian astronomers using the International Scientific Optical Network, or ISON, the comet’s future depends on whether it survives a pass close to the sun’s broiling surface. That should happen at noon Arizona time on Thanksgiving Day.

Astronomers say the ISON comet may still make for a spectacular show in early December. Or it could be a dud, an overhyped spectacle that fizzles out from the sun’s heat and gravity.

“The thing that makes comets really exciting is you don’t need a telescope to see these things,” said Erik Asphaug, a professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration.



The center of the Earth is about 6,371 kilometers or 4, 000 miles away, roughly the distance between Phoenix and the North Pole.

It cannot be seen. It cannot be touched. And it cannot be sampled.

But that doesn’t stop Dan Shim, a mineral physicist in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU, from trying to understand the forces working deep within our world.

“You may wonder why I’m interested in the interior, which is far, far away and sounds like something that is separated from our daily life,” Shim said. “But if you think of the whole planet, the surface is very small volumetrically and the interior represents 99 percent of the planet.”

Studying the interior of the Earth helps scientists answer questions about how the Earth has changed over billions of years and why there are volcanoes and earthquakes, Shim said.

But figuring out what the inside of the Earth is made of is not so easy.

“If you think about geologists, you think about rocks and studying rocks, but in our case there are no rock samples to deal with unfortunately,” Shim said.

There are several different ways to study the Earth’s interior, which cannot be directly probed. Seismologists look at how earthquakes propagate through the Earth and try to construct an image based on the waves’ reflections and refractions.

Shim’s research helps seismologists understand what the images mean.

“If you do an ultrasound of your body, you’re basically looking at contrasts in properties,” Shim said. The reason doctors can say, “This is a tumor,” is because the tumor looks different relative to the image of the body surrounding it, he said.

“But to understand the image, you need to understand the properties of the material that makes up the particular thing you image,” Shim said. “My job is to squeeze the rock up to the pressure you expect for the mantle and the core and observe what kind of processes are going on in the lab.”

Shim and his research team study how the properties of rocks change under extreme pressure and temperature by simulating the conditions in the laboratory.

The laboratory experiments help Shim understand how the deep interior of the Earth operates and helps him interpret seismology data

“One fancy part of my research is using diamonds,” Shim said.

Diamond is the strongest material known in nature, making it ideal for high pressure experiments.

Using a microscope and a needle, Shim takes pieces of rocks smaller than the width of a human hair and places them in between two quarter-carat diamonds. The diamonds, which are embedded in steel casings, are forced together by four screws to higher and higher pressures.

“If you stack 100 Statue of Liberties, and then apply that weight to one square inch, that’s roughly the pressure at the center of the Earth,” Shim said.

The pressure Shim works with is so great that sometimes the diamonds break, he said.

“We have a joke in my community: How many diamonds do you need to break to get a Ph.D.?” Shim said. “I broke 11.”

Shim has been an associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration since August 2011. He has taught Geology 101, Planetary Materials and will be teaching Dynamic Planet in the spring.

“SESE has a very unique structure bringing astrophysicists, geologists, geophysicists and system engineers all together,” Shim said. “This unique structure presents a lot of new opportunities.”

Photo: Sang-Heon Dan Shim, a mineral physicist in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, uses a microscope and needles to place tiny rock samples in between two diamonds. Shim uses the diamonds to simulate conditions that exist in the Earth's interior. Credit: Kristen Hwang

(Kristen Hwang)



Solid Terrain Modeling Inc. is the company that made our Valles Marineris / Grand Canyon comparison 3D model on the first floor of ISTB 4. They do neat stuff! Like the world’s largest physical terrain model, etc.




What: Earth & Space Open House
Friday, Nov. 22 from 7-10 p.m.
Location: ISTB 4 (lecture at 8 p.m. in the Marston Exploration Theater and telescopes from 8-10 p.m. on the Rural parking structure roof, weather permitting)

Event features: A public lecture, a special comet demonstration, planetarium shows, exhibits, and activities in the Gallery of Scientific Exploration (ISTB 4 1st and 2nd floor), including an underwater robotics demo. There will be two 3D planetarium shows at 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. in the Marston Exploration Theater.

Public Lecture Information:
Speaker: Steven Desch, SESE professor
Time: 8 p.m. (Lecture is in Room 185)
Title: Icy Messengers from Beyond - Exploring the Role of Comets in our Solar System

Steven Desch, associate professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration, will talk about comets. He will describe what they are, discuss comet ISON, and talk about their role in art and history. Desch is an astrophysicist who models the formation of stars, planets and solar systems, and specializes in using data from meteorites to constrain those models. He is the recipient of the 2003 Nier Prize of the Meteoritical Society. More recently he has modeled the internal thermal evolution of icy dwarf planets.

The future open house dates are: 2/21, 3/28, and 4/25, each featuring a different earth and space-related theme.
Facebook Event: 
Earth & Space Open House website:




Capturing the public’s interest is a key component for “New Space,” where commercial companies are filling in some of the roles that had been traditionally played by NASA, and education has an important role to play, said Ariel Anbar, a professor in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

This new role for academia is “a deeper, more authentic relationship than providing training and science majors” to industry, he said. Educating non-science majors is also important.

“Investors in space companies primarily are not going to be science majors,” Anbar said. “They are business majors, philosophy majors, history majors. These are the people who need to have a good understanding of what is done out there and how it affects us down here.”

Anbar was speaking at a Nov. 15 forum on the future of space exploration at the National Press Club. The forum featured a panel of space industry experts discussing the future of space exploration in a time of curtailed NASA funding and a need of more collaboration between industry, academia and the government.

The panel included Lori Garver, former Deputy Administrator, NASA; Alex Saltman, executive director, Commercial Space Flight Federation; Steve Isakowitz, president, Virgin Galactic; Jon Morse, CEO, Boldly Go Institute; and Laurie Leshin, dean, School of Science, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Anbar said a key to success in this New Space era is seeking to garner public interest and support.

“We need to think of public interest as a market,” he said. “We have to figure out ways to tap that market.”

One way Anbar proposed is for a university and space company to work together and set up a MOOC (massively open on-line course) that would provide a portal into the work and missions of the space company.

“Missions can go for several years in development and execution,” Anbar said. “The MOOC could provide an educational experience that could last a student’s career and provide insight and experience” unparalleled today.

If they added in a nominal cost of taking part in the MOOC, of say $100, then it in turn could provide funding to the company for future missions.

“The goal is to match a public interest with a commercial interest,” Anbar said.

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

Photo: An artist's conception of the Dragon capsule developed by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), one of six companies designing launch vehicles and spacecraft designs for NASA's Commercial Crew Program. Credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

(Skip Derra)



Model maker Jim Arbaugh has completed another project for SESE that demonstrates his incredible talent and attention to detail. Please be sure to check out the ISS model installed in the display window on the NW corner of ISTB 4. Jim also built the MSL Curiosity rover and the new Saturn V rocket model on display in the gallery.



SpaceVision 2013, the largest annual student-organized space conference in the world, was held Nov. 7-10 in and around the new state-of-the-art ISTB 4 building on the ASU Tempe campus, home to the School for Earth and Space Exploration. Speakers included science superstars Bill Nye the Science Guy, Phil “The Bad Astronomer” Plait and a range of speakers from the space sciences.

SpaceVision brings students from across the world together with professionals and thought leaders in academia for four days of networking, education and awareness around space and science.

This year’s conference was co-hosted by the ASU and University of Arizona SEDS chapters. Approximately 350 students attended, with roughly 50 from ASU and most of those from either SESE or the Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“SpaceVision 2013 was a huge success. We had some phenomenal and enthusiastic new and veteran speakers that generated a great deal of excitement for all attendees,” said economics major John Conafay, president of SEDS ASU and co-chair of SpaceVision.

Bill Nye, a highlight for many attendees, kicked off the conference Thursday evening with a keynote address. Following his speech were several days of workshops, tours and Ignite Talks by SEDS alumnus. Speakers also included: Bob Richards the cofounder of SEDS and CEO of Moon Express, author and astronomer Phil “The Bad Astronomer” Plait, President of The Planetary Society Dr. Jim Bell and others.

“The Ignite Talks are a SEDS tradition of having SEDS alumni who are new in industry come back and share their stories with current SEDS students. This year we had SESE alumni Hallie Gengl, Jim Crowell, Laura Fisher and University of Colorado at Boulder alum Kyle Shannon all give talks,” said Jack Lightholder, computer science major, vice president of the ASU chapter and co-chair of SpaceVision.

Attendees interacted with speakers and others from various private, government and academic space sectors. Of special interest were representatives of two asteroid mining companies: Rick Tumlinson, founder of Deep Space Industries and Chris Lewicki, Chief Asteroid Miner (President & Chief Engineer) of Planetary Resources, Inc.

The conference also included elections for national officers. Lightholder and Conafay were both elected to the national board of directors for SEDS-USA as the vice chair and treasurer, respectively.

SEDS is an independent, student-based organization which promotes the exploration and development of space. SEDS believes in a space-faring civilization and that focusing the enthusiasm of young people is the key to our future in space.

(Nikki Cassis)