News and Updates

12/12/2012
SESE scientists Meenakshi Wadhwa and Tom Sharp are in Antarctica this winter, collecting meteorites as part of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) 2012-2013 field season.  This is the first ANSMET team to feature two scientists from the same University!
 
You can read their blogs from the field, as well as those of other ANSMET team members, here.

 

11/29/2012

Lectures, PowerPoint presentations and assigned readings are the basis of the typical classroom experience, but experts say science education is moving away from this traditional teaching routine.

 
A new teaching style called inquiry based instruction focuses on student inquiry and project-based learning. It encourages students to develop creative and practical problem-solving, experts said.
 
Kip Hodges, founding director of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, will be honored in this week’s issue of Science magazine for his work in developing this teaching style.
 
Hodges was chosen as one of 15 recipients of the Science Prize for Inquiry Based Instruction by the editors of Science magazine. He describes his work in an essay published in the Nov. 30 issue of Science. “Instead of giving students information in a classroom, the idea behind inquiry based instruction is to create an environment where students have to find things out for themselves,” Hodges said.
 
Hodges initially developed the idea for his teaching style for a class named “Solving Complex Problems” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught before moving to ASU in 2006.
 
In that class, Hodges said he challenged his students to design a mission to Mars to search for signs of past or present life.
 
“Students had to learn how to find information from many different domains of science, engineering and policy,” Hodges said. “They learned how to think across the boundaries of traditional disciplines.”
 
At ASU, he used the same approach teaching “Engineering Systems and Experimental Design,” a class typically taken by students majoring in Earth and Space Exploration in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Aerospace Engineering in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport, and Energy.
 
Frequently, he partnered in teaching the course with Winslow Burleson, a faculty member in ASU’s School of Computing and Informatics.
 
Shay Cheeseman, an Earth and Space Exploration senior, took the class as a sophomore. Her class was given the challenge of designing a mission to the moon.
 
Cheeseman said the class taught her skills that more traditional classes do not, including teamwork and taking an interdisciplinary approach toward problem solving.
 
“Students did a lot of work to make sure everybody did their part,” she said. “You have people depending on you, so it’s more like a work situation.”
 
Raymond Sanders, a senior astrophysics major, was a classmate of Cheeseman. He said the class focused on how science is done “in the real world.”
 
From the student’s perspective, “A lot of traditional lecture courses wind up being simple regurgitation,” Sanders said. “Hodges’ course takes the practical approach of ‘Here is a problem. I want to see how you solve it.’”
 
He explained that creativity is a key part of effective problem solving, especially when Hodges would throw challenges at the class like “What if your rocket blows up during the launch?”
 
“Hodges didn’t put constraints on anything. He didn’t want us talking about Star Trek or Star Wars, but he did want us to find novel ways to solve the problem,” Sanders said.
 
Hodges said that one of the goals of inquiry based education is to teach students how to be creative.
 
“When you’re an undergraduate, much of your education is about learning how to solve problems for which there is an answer key,” he said. “But after you graduate, society asks you to solve problems that have no well-defined solution, and that requires much greater creativity.”
 
Hodges hasn’t taught the engineering systems and experimental design class since the Fall 2011 semester because of curriculum restructuring within the school.
 
But starting in Spring 2013, Hodges will teach the senior capstone course for the school’s B.A. major in Earth and Environmental Studies as an inquiry based class.
 
“The more we teach students that there is a profound value to creativity, the better we’re serving them in terms of preparing them for the rest of their lives,” he said.
 
(Kristen Hwang)

 

 

11/28/2012

Fresh produce at the supermarket, running water and the daily weather forecast are everyday conveniences that rely on soil moisture measurements.

 
Soil moisture, a term not heard in everyday conversation, is the water found in the top soil layers in the ground. This water is a key component of the hydrological cycle, the Earth’s system of moving water from the oceans to the atmosphere to the ground and back again.
 
Until now, the accuracy and applicability of soil moisture measurements obtained from space has been limited. However, an Arizona State University research team is working to change that.
 
Led by Enrique Vivoni, an ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration professor, the team recently received a $220,000 NASA grant for the development of a way to increase the utility of satellite-based soil moisture measurements.
 
The other team member is research engineer Giuseppe Mascaro, in ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.
 
“Soil moisture is the most important variable in the hydrological cycle of the land surface,” Vivoni said. “We’re talking about the water that can be used by plants and the water that’s in direct contact with the atmosphere.”
 
Who it affects
Before water makes its way into streams, lakes or reservoirs it exists as soil moisture.
 
Because soil moisture directly impacts the amount of water that is available in a particular region, water managers rely on soil moisture data to determine how much water can be released to cities and agricultural areas.
 
Eric Kamienski, a water resources manager in Tempe, Ariz., said water managers spend much of their time collecting data and monitoring the amount of water that is available to their area.
 
In years of drought, water managers need to know how severe the drought is and be able to predict how long it will persist. This information is partly based on soil moisture data, Kamienski said.
 
“The amount of water in storage determines how they allocate water,” he said. “When there are years with prolonged drought and you see reservoir levels fall, water managers have to take immediate action.”
 
The data also help scientists make weather and climate predictions.
 
“The amount of soil water in the landscape has a big effect on atmospheric conditions,” Vivoni said.
 
The dryness or wetness of an area impacts the amount of rainfall the area is likely to experience.
 
If an area is dry and has little soil moisture, there is little water that can be evaporated and recycled back as rainwater. This feedback loop helps scientists predict if a dry spell in that area is likely to continue.
 
Similarly, an area with large amounts of soil moisture is likely to flood when it rains. If government agencies know that an area is prone to flooding, they can ensure that appropriate emergency response measures are in place, Vivoni said.
 
Current measurements
Over the last ten years, a sensor aboard the NASA satellite Aqua collected soil moisture data by recording microwave emissions from the land surface. This sensor reported a failure and stopped working in October.
 
The instrument collected data at resolutions of about 25 square kilometers (about 10 square miles) per sample, Vivoni said. The data are too coarse to be useful for people like farmers or reservoir operators who manage plots of land that can be less than half a mile across, he said.
 
“Twenty-five kilometers is larger than Tempe. This means that there is a single soil moisture value for the entire city. That’s a big limitation,” he said.
 
The project
A new sensor, which is set to launch in November 2014 aboard the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite, will provide data representing 10 square kilometers (4 square miles). But Vivoni and Mascaro want to refine even those results. 
 
Vivoni and Mascaro developed and are testing a mathematical model that can provide detailed information on soil moisture data based on the less detailed satellite data.
 
Mascaro explained that the model will take the satellite’s data point representing 10 square kilometers and simulate the statistical variability of soil moisture values for each square kilometer within the larger area. This means that the model will be able to provide information on the soil moisture values for each square kilometer based off of the satellite’s coarser data. One square kilometer is about 0.4 square miles.
 
“Imagine having this bird’s eye view of soil moisture over the entire country,” Vivoni said. “It would give us an idea of how weather systems impact soil moisture and how our actions affect the landscape’s soil moisture.”
 
Vivoni and Mascaro proposed to include the model in the satellite’s computer system. This way the onboard calculations would be available to all scientists who use NASA data, not just to the team.
 
With this data available to others, Kamienski said he believes the project will benefit water managers and those whom they service.
 
“This is one more tool that they could use to determine overall watershed conditions,” he said. “It will help them know what the next season may look like so they can start planning reservoir operations accordingly.”
 
(Kristen Hwang)

 

 

10/29/2012

To patrons of fine art, space might seem like a foreign frontier but the monOrchid art gallery in downtown Phoenix will bring the two together when it hosts dozens of images taken from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC).

 
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is a NASA mission that is a precursor to the return of humans to the Moon. LROC, which is one of seven instruments aboard the orbiter, is run from the Tempe campus by principal investigator Mark Robinson.
 
This unusual exhibit will feature LROC images of the Moon depicting impact craters, ancient lava flows and the Apollo landing site where astronauts first stepped onto the lunar surface. The exhibit will premiere Nov. 2, during the First Friday art walk in downtown Phoenix and remain open every Friday in November from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
 
MonOrchid is located at 214 E. Roosevelt St., in downtown Phoenix.
 
“The Moon is a really beautiful place,” said Robinson, creator of the exhibit. “These are like Ansel Adams images of the Moon.”
 
Robinson, who is also a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU, said he was inspired to build the exhibit as a way to reach new audiences who would not typically get to see high quality lunar images. “This is a fantastic way to reach out to the public in a different way than we normally do,” he added.
 
MonOrchid owner Wayne Rainey said that on a typical First Friday night as many as 10,000 people visit his gallery. He said the exhibit is an opportunity to start a conversation with generations of people who did not grow up during the Apollo missions and never saw images of the Moon.
 
“The best art informs us emotionally and intellectually, and this is a chance to get kids involved in the arts,” Rainey said.
 
The centerpiece of the exhibit, a 10-foot square mosaic of Aristarchus Crater, will be accompanied by other large photographs showing prominent features on the lunar landscape.
 
LROC research engineer Emerson Speyerer has also put together a film that will be shown in the gallery. The film includes original footage taken during the first astronaut mission to the moon alongside modern-day footage taken by LROC.
 
“When people envision the moon, it’s nothing like what they actually will see and what we can take an image of,” Speyerer said.
 
Robinson added that exciting the public about space and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s mission to put humans back on the Moon is one goal of the exhibit.  
 
“The Moon is not a dead and boring place,” he said. “I want them to walk out of there and say, ‘Wow, the Moon is a beautiful place, and it’s great that we have spacecraft taking those pictures.”
 
(Kristen Hwang)
 
 
 
 
 
10/17/2012

What began in the fall of 2011 as a class project has grown into something much bigger than expected. A group of Arizona State University students launched an experiment that could have far-reaching impacts on renewable energy and a reduction on the reliance of fossil fuels.

The group of seniors, led by Patrick McGarey and Amy Kaczmarowski, planned, designed, and recently launched a wind velocity experiment called the High Altitude Turbine Survey (HATS).

McGarey, the project lead, graduated from ASU this spring with a degree in Earth & Space Exploration (Systems Design) and decided to stay on to see the project through. McGarey has been with the project since its inception last fall, when he and his team first crafted the project proposal in Professor Srikanth Saripalli’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) senior design class (SES 410/411).

With an initial plan in mind, the team began working through different ideas. Many different concepts were expressed and “… a lot of wacky ideas,” McGarey quipped.

HATS is studying high altitude wind energy generation by measuring changing performance characteristics of two micro-turbine airfoils (propellers) aboard a NASA high altitude balloon. The balloon is similar to the one carrying Felix Baumgartner, the Red Bull Stratos iconic skydiver, to the edge of space. The study is looking at the feasibility of generating wind energy at high altitudes using specialized turbine airfoils, which would ideally be mounted on a tethered aerostat (stationary airborne platform).

The students’ project looks at wind power generated from turbine airfoils (propellers) at high altitudes. Seven miles into the air, the wind in the jet stream has been measured at more than 100 miles per hour. Harnessing this wind would provide a much more reliable source of wind energy than ground-based or off-shore wind farms currently offer.

Traditional ground-based wind energy has been less reliable due to high variability in wind and weather conditions on the surface. HATS may begin to open the door, making high altitude wind a more reliable renewable energy source.

The students aimed to create an apparatus for testing high altitude micro-turbine airfoils (propellers), to learn how propeller performance characteristics such as thrust and strain varied as the balloon went from sea level to over 24 miles in altitude. Additionally, the students installed sensors to measure varying atmospheric / environmental conditions throughout the flight.

According to McGarey, the system has, “ …sensors including optical encoders, strain gauges, thermocouples, pressure gauges, and a digital weather station, [that]will provide environmental data throughout ascent and descent in order to create a velocity and thrust generation profile corresponding to altitude, pressure, and wind speed.”

The basis for the project began when Kaczmarowski, systems engineering lead, came across an article regarding high altitude energy systems, which inspired her to form the initial concept for the balloon-borne payload that would become HATS. The article illustrated the potential for high altitude wind power to realistically serve as a source for clean energy in the near future.

Beginning in spring of 2012 the team of students, with their faculty lead, Professor Srikanth Saripalli, began to design and decide what was practical. They looked at what would work, using off-the-shelf items to develop the project. The team was grateful to receive funding from Saripalli’s ASTRIL field robotics laboratory and ASU/NASA Space Grant.

Later in May, testing began. Shay Cheeseman, another team member majoring in Earth & Space Exploration, programmed the software for the apparatus and refined the machine. The team worked within NASA guidelines and made sure everything met the requirements set forth from the High Altitude Student Platform (HASP), a program offered by Louisiana State University (LSU), NASA Balloon Program Office (BPO), and the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) that allows 12 student teams from around the country to fly scientific payloads into the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

Over the summer, McGarey traveled to CSBF in Palestine, Texas, and spent a week preparing the payload and getting ready to launch with fellow SESE student Alex Kafka. On September 1, from a different CSBF location in Fort Summer, New Mexico, McGarey attended the HASP balloon launch with the HATS payload attached.

The balloon, filled with over 11 million cubic feet of helium, was monitored as the half ton HASP payload traveled above 25,000 feet in altitude. The payload stayed airborne for over nine hours, traveling more than 500 miles across New Mexico and Arizona, even flying over ASU, before landing just west of Phoenix.

While the collected data will not be fully analyzed until later this year, McGarey and his team are calling the HATS mission a success.

“Anytime you create something that’s never been created before, you’re lucky enough to get functionality out of it,” McGarey explained.

That is precisely what happened. The payload did everything that it was designed to do, and there were no mechanical failures.

McGarey knows this is a field that very few have explored, with the exception of several exciting startup companies, who are currently developing working prototypes to harness airborne wind energy. Geothermal and solar energy are very popular, but harnessing high altitude wind is a field that has yet to be fully tapped.

Image: Patrick McGary works on HATS at CSBF in Palestine, TX July 2012

(Heath Harris)

 

10/16/2012

If space is the final frontier, then why are we so tentative about exploring it and moving away from Earth? Space exploration comes with huge risks and a high price tag, but if we ever wanted to leave a truly lasting legacy, then humans will eventually need to have a permanent presence beyond our home planet.

Two events on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus will take a penetrating look at the future of space exploration and ask why progress has been so slow since Neil Armstrong landed on the moon 43 years ago.

The first event, fittingly, will be given by an astronaut who has logged more than 75 million miles in space. On Thursday, Oct. 25 (7:30 p.m., Neeb Hall), Australian-born Dr. Andrew Thomas will deliver the 2012 Eugene Shoemaker Memorial Lecture, an annual event organized by ASU’s Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science to celebrate the life and work of Arizona-based Gene Shoemaker, a pioneer of cosmic impacts who also helped train the Apollo astronauts. Titled “Human space flight: Why aren’t we boldly going?” the lecture will set out Thomas’s personal take on how America can re-invigorate the manned space program.

“Andy Thomas is the quintessential astronaut – calm, professional, inspiring and a brilliant speaker,” said Paul Davies, Director of the Beyond Center. “I am thrilled we have managed to get him for the prestigious Shoemaker Lecture.”

On Friday, an all-day symposium (10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Oct. 26, Marston Theater, ISTB4 building) will provide an in-depth analysis of how the dream of human space exploration can be re-kindled. Featuring an all-star line-up of space travel stakeholders, including the noted science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, the symposium is co-sponsored by the Beyond Center, the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) and the new Center for Science and the Imagination.

Imagination will be much in evidence, as the symposium will begin with near-term goals, such as space travel privatization, and end with a sweeping vision of how futuristic breakthrough technologies mean we can still dream of reaching for the stars.

“Fasten your seat belts for a wild ride,” said Davies.

Speakers include George Whitesides, CEO and president of Virgin Galactic, who will talk about privatizing space travel; SESE director Kip Hodges, aerospace engineer and author Robert Zubrin of Mars Now, as well as astronaut Andrew Thomas and ASU faculty members Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss and Sam Lawrence. This fascinating day of science, speculation and space will be launched by TV personality Hugh Downs.

Both events are free and open to the public. For more information, please go to http://beyond.asu.edu/, or call 480-965-3240.

Photo: An astronaut works outside of the international space station. The future of human space exploration is the topic of two upcoming ASU events on the Tempe campus. Photo by: NASA photo

(Skip Derra)

 

10/15/2012

For 13 weeks over the summer, Arizona State University student Laura Fisher interned at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. It was an experience of a lifetime, one that allowed her to be part of a major milestone in space exploration: the landing of the Mars Curiosity rover.

Fisher, a senior majoring in business communications and minoring in astrophysics, learned about the internship by exploring the JPL website.

“After working for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera team for the last two and a half years, I’ve learned that the most important part of success is hands-on experience and networking. I’ve always dreamed about working for JPL one day and I knew that interning there would be my best shot at a job offer after graduation,” explains Fisher. “I didn’t expect for JPL to be offering a business internship being that they mainly seek out science or engineering majors but when I saw the business communications internship opening I was beyond thrilled.”

Fisher was originally hired by NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) as their business communication intern. The Deep Space program, which she describes as, “the backbone of NASA,” is an international network of three equidistant communication stations with large antennas that connects different exploratory missions, as well as observations of the solar system and universe.

During the internship, she focused on financial reports and analysis, as well as supporting the DSN’s educational and public outreach mission.

“I helped at JPL’s public viewing of the Venus transit, I worked the JPL Open House for the DSN, and I helped create an informational video for the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) group, an educational program held at the school that is on the military base at Goldstone,” explains Fisher. “They are beta testing a new program that involves SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and GAVRT by using the students to be able to look through all the data and static that they receive from the Goldstone Station’s antennas and look for a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence.”

Watch the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qJjBrVWFYI&feature=youtu.be.

Another public outreach task she took on was creating a video for the 35th anniversary of the launch of the spacecraft, Voyager. Her video showed the growing relationship between the DSN and Voyager over the last 35 years.

More aligned to her business communications degree, she also helped write estimate at completion reports for the DSN. These budget reports show the needed funding required to complete a project. This up-close view on creating, understanding, and analyzing budgets gave her great insight into the complexity of the financial aspects of NASA.

One of the highlights of the summer was being in such close proximity to the excitement surrounding Curiosity’s landing.

During the summer, Fisher had the privilege of seeing Curiosity’s engineering twin, a test rover used to simulate problems that might occur in actual day to day explorations (e.g., if the rover were to get stuck, researchers would simulate the terrain that it is stuck in and figure out which command works best to get it out.) The simulations are created in a warehouse called the In-Situ Instrument Lab (ISIL) which is designed to represent the Martian atmosphere. The floor is covered with cat litter to create a landscape that demonstrated how the rover would move on the ground as it explored the planet. Lights installed in the ceiling emit an orange haze that mock the sunlight that would be seen on Mars.

“I got to get up close and personal with the Curiosity twin because Jim Bell, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, was visiting JPL since he is a science team member for MSL’s Mastcam, MAHLI and MARDI cameras. He called me that day and asked if I wanted to check out the rover so [SESE alumna] Hallie Gengl and I rushed down to see it after he called us,” says Fisher.

All of the testing and waiting finally paid off as Fisher watched the video feed of Curiosity’s successful landing on Mars. She was invited to join in the excitement at JPL’s off site facility for Goldstone, located about 10 miles away from JPL, which served as JPL’s event overflow site.

For Fisher, being part of these projects during such an exciting time in space exploration is something she will never forget.

“I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my summer than the way that I did. Being able to walk into work at JPL everyday, seeing and meeting the masterminds behind all that is NASA from the scientists, engineers and business men and women was an awe-inspiring experience. I felt privileged to be in the same room with the people who made the MSL mission a success. It was such a monumental event that I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” she says.

This was the perfect opportunity for her to put to use what she had learned, not only as a business major, but also in astrophysics. She worked alongside those who are involved in the daily workings of a spacecraft that is exploring new worlds and helped others share that experience through her work with the public engagement team. She also witnessed the business side of exploration and the finer details that go into making these impressive projects feasible.

(Heath Harris)

Photo: Laura Fisher, JPL intern, poses with Curiosity rover's engineering twin.

10/11/2012

For the first time, more than 22,000 Arizonans will participate in the Great ShakeOut, an annual earthquake drill held on Oct. 18 at 10:18 a.m.

The ShakeOut began in 2008 in California as a way to educate the public about earthquake preparedness. Since then it has grown into an international event with nearly 17 million participants.

Although not traditionally thought of as a frequent epicenter for earthquakes, Arizona is not free from earthquake hazard. The USArray component of EarthScope, an earth science program that researches the structure and evolution of the North American continent, detected over 1,000 earthquakes in Arizona during the past two years.

“Earthquake risk in Arizona is low, but that doesn’t mean it is nonexistent,” said Wendy Bohon, an Arizona State University graduate student majoring in geological sciences and EarthScope social media coordinator. “It can almost be worse in places where there are smaller earthquakes, because people don’t know what to do.”

The EarthScope National Office (ESNO), based at ASU for the next three years, signed up to participate in the ShakeOut this year to encourage hazard awareness, Bohon said.

On Oct. 17 EarthScope will host a free public lecture series from 7-9 p.m. on the science behind earthquakes, earthquakes in Arizona, and ways to be prepared. The lecture will be held in the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4 in the Marston Exploration Theater.

The drill will take place the next morning.

ESNO director and speaker Ramon Arrowsmith said taking a few minutes to think about what to do in the event of an earthquake can only help.

“When you’re panicked, you can’t think, so it’s important to plan ahead and pay attention to what looks strong and what could fall on top of you,” said Arrowsmith, who is also a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE).

“It is also valuable to think about communications with your family and friends in the case of a natural or human-caused disaster,” he said.

SESE professors Steve Semken and Ed Garnero, along with SESE graduate student Jeff Lockridge, will also be speaking.

Sarah Robinson, education and outreach coordinator for EarthScope, said that although Arizona is relatively stable, faults in California and Mexico are close enough to cause significant shaking.

“A lot of people don’t realize that we have earthquake hazards here, but plates are moving all around us,” Robinson said. “There will be tectonic activity all the time because the ground is not totally solid.”

Robinson said the day of the drill the EarthScope office and anyone who wants to participate will be “dropping, covering and holding on” to simulate what they would do in the event of an earthquake.

Bohon said the drill might seem absurd, but earthquakes don’t stop at state boundaries and can happen anywhere.

“It’s my job as a scientist to tell people about earthquakes and to help prepare them for the possibility of earthquakes in their area,” she said.

Arrowsmith said it is important for people in areas that are not earthquake-prone to be aware of the dangers and consequences especially if they travel.

“We need to think globally and act locally,” he said. “We now live in a connected world where we might not feel the earthquake physically, but it will hit us economically or in some other way.”

(Kristen Hwang)

10/10/2012

What meteorites on Mars tell us about its climate history will be the topic of a talk given by James Ashley, a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Space and Earth Exploration, at 7 p.m., Oct. 12, in the Marston Exploration Theater, in the new Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4 (ISTB 4), ASU Tempe campus.

The free lecture is sponsored by SESE. After the lecture, students will be scattered throughout the interactive exhibits in ISTB4 to explain the displays and answer questions.

“The pursuit of an answer to the time-honored question ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ leads scientists down many paths that cross a multitude of disciplines," says Ashley. “In the planetary sciences, the quest can result in the careful engineering of robotic spacecraft designed to answer specific questions about the habitability of planets they are sent to explore.

“Mars is a world that is both easily accessible at reasonable costs and potentially habitable. We are interested in the role that water may have played in Mars' geologic history because of its importance to astrobiology.

“Each of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) spacecraft was designed to last for 90 days on Mars in 2004. One of the two rovers (Opportunity) continues exploring today, almost nine years later.

“Among the many discoveries made during this mission are several large, iron meteorites that show dramatic signs of water interaction near the martian equator. We will take a close look at these rocks and discuss their significance to climate on the Red Planet.”

The next astronomy event open to the public is an Open House scheduled from 8 to 10 p.m., Oct. 26, on the roof of the Bateman Physical Sciences Building H-Wing, Tempe campus. For more information, astopenhouse.com.

Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/ASUs-Earth-Space-Open-House/105938709443606
https://www.facebook.com/events/151872191621037/

(Judith Smith)

09/27/2012

Researchers connect spike in ancient oceanic oxygen levels to earliest animal biodiversity

An international team of scientists has uncovered new evidence linking early animal evolution to extreme climate change.

A dramatic rise in atmospheric oxygen levels has long been speculated as the trigger for early animal evolution. In the Sept. 27 issue of the journal Nature, researchers for the first time offer evidence of a causal link between trends in early biological diversity and shifts in Earth system processes.

The fossil record shows a marked increase in animal and algae fossils roughly 635 million years ago. Researchers believe that oceanic oxygen levels spiked suddenly at this time, in the wake of a severe glaciation, reaching the level necessary to allow animals to flourish. The new evidence pre-dates previous estimates of a life-sustaining oxygenation event by more than 50 million years.

“For more than three quarters of the Earth’s history, the oxygen level in the atmosphere and ocean was insufficient to support animal life,” said Swapan Sahoo, lead author and University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) Ph.D. student. “Our findings support a link between glaciation, oxygenation of surface environments and the diversification of animals. Knowing the environment where the first animals lived is critical for understanding the evolutionary stress of ecosystems.”

Sahoo visited Arizona State University to carry out trace metal analyses in Professor Ariel Anbar’s lab, under the supervision of Brian Kendall, who was a faculty research associate at ASU and is now a professor at Waterloo. Both are co-authors on the paper.

An analysis of iron and trace metal concentrations in organic-rich rocks collected from the Doushantuo Formation in South China revealed spikes in metals that denote higher levels of seawater oxygen. These elevated levels of molybdenum, vanadium and uranium slightly predated the earliest oxygen-demanding animal fossils, supporting the link between ocean oxygenation and animal evolution.

“This is the latest study using changes in the amount of the rare element molybdenum in ancient rocks to learn how Earth’s atmosphere has changed with time – and how those changes may have shaped the evolution of our distant ancestors,” says Anbar, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

High element concentrations found in the South China rocks are comparable to modern ocean sediments and point to a substantial oxygen increase in the ocean-atmosphere system. Researchers say the oxygen rise is likely due to increased organic carbon burial. Nutrient supplies tend to go up because of weathering during glacial retreat, which leads to a positive feedback between organic carbon burial and oxygen release.

“Photosynthesis is the most efficient process to generate oxygen,” said UNLV’s Ganqing Jiang, principal investigator of the study. “Fast burial of a large quantity of photosynthetic organic carbon in sediments would leave free oxygen in the ocean-atmosphere system, leading to significant oxygen rise.”

The large variability of iron content and trace metal concentrations in the South China rocks may cause scientists to rethink existing geological interpretations about ancient oceans and could lead to accompanying investigations of similar-aged rocks in other continents.

The joint research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the NASA Exobiology Program and National Natural Science Foundation of China.