News and Updates


The popular culture we love – movies, TV, literature, video games – can have an enormous impact on the way we see the world, and it feeds our passion to learn about new ideas and imagine the world differently. This is especially true for science fiction: many scientists and engineers can trace their interest in science back to a moment in their past when a fictional universe like Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired them to learn more about the world around them.

From January 17 - June 8, 2014, the Tempe Center for the Arts presents American POP! Comic Books to Science Fiction...and Beyond, an exhibition that explores the transformative effects that science fiction and popular culture have on our everyday lives and the technology that surrounds us. Displays include materials from local and national collectors, original art and limited edition pieces from some of America’s favorite pop culture icons, as well as science exhibits.

Tempe Center for the Arts (TCA) and Arizona State University have worked together to create an exhibit that will investigate the relationship between popular culture, scientific inquiry, technological innovation and cultural change. Several ASU units, including the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Center for Science and the Imagination, contributed to the design of the exhibit.

In an effort to bring some reality to all the pop culture and science fiction, the School of Earth and Space Exploration will be providing nonfiction scientific displays and all-too- real stunning images of actual science, including exhibits specific to the Moon, Mars, and meteorites.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera team, located on ASU’s Tempe campus, will be providing 24 framed lunar images, and a few larger panels. The Ronald Greeley Center for Planetary Studies will provide images from various early NASA missions including Viking and Voyager. The Mars Space Flight Facility will provide images from various missions, past and ongoing, including a panoramic landscape that will be used as a backdrop for “Marvin the Martian”, a 4 foot high 3D model that belonged to the iconic character’s creator, Chuck Jones. A replica of the ray guns that Marvin used will also be available for a photo op. The Center for Meteorite Studies will provide samples of lunar, Martian, and other meteorites to be displayed in each of these exhibits. As a part of the meteorite display, artistic and informative digital images of meteorite sections will be displayed as large banners.

As a part of this innovative exhibition, TCA also partnered with ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI). CSI filmed a series of video interviews with scientists, engineers and other creative people from ASU and beyond, tracing the influence of science fiction and popular culture on their education, their careers and their scientific and creative work. The video exhibit is online now at, and will air in the exhibit starting on January 17.

“Our mission is to bring scientists, engineers and technologists together with writers, artists and other creative thinkers to imagine our future differently,” says Ed Finn, CSI’s director. “Building these collaborations has helped us realize that there is a vibrant flow of ideas between the scientific community and the science fiction community. This exhibit is a great example of how understanding pop culture helps you better understand the culture of science and engineering, and vice versa.”

Two SESE scientists are featured in the video collection. SESE associate research professor David Williams discussed how his work on planetary geology was inspired by his childhood fascination with the Star Trek universe, complete with a question about “cold fusion,” a science fictional process that Star Trek’s Dr. Spock (Williams’ favorite fictional character) uses to stop a volcanic eruption in the 2013 film Star Trek Into Darkness. Melissa Morris, assistant director of the Center for Meteorite Studies, was also interviewed, with her interview focusing on science fiction’s ability to present optimistic and inspiring visions of the future, as well as the planet-generating spaceship featured in the film Titan A.E. Other ASU scholars featured in the collection include David Guston, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, Jeff Yarger, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Ron Broglio, associate professor in the Department of English.

A collection of Williams’ and Morris’s science fiction-related personal items will also be on display at the exhibit. Be sure to check out Williams’ Star Trek uniform from his graduate student days and a retro Star Trek Transport toy – with all the characters.

Each Friday evening from January 17 through June 8, TCA will host Sci-Fi Friday, featuring presentations on subjects ranging from robotics to game design to planetary imaging. Several SESE community members, including a student, will be presenting.
• February 7: David Williams, “Asteroids, Ion Propulsion and NASA’s Dawn Mission to Vesta and Ceres”
• February 14: Graduate student Teresa Ashcraft will present hands-on demonstrations, Internet resources and lesson plan information for teachers
• March 14: Professor Mark Robinson will discuss what scientists have learned about the Moon from recent missions and the future of lunar exploration
• April 4: Melissa Morris, “Rocks from Space”
• April 11: Meg Hufford and Amy Zink from the Ronald Greeley Center for Planetary Studies

Further details can be found at the following website:

(Nikki Cassis)




Kelin Whipple, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and a senior fellow in the Earth System Evolution Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, has been recognized with a prestigious award from the National Academy of Sciences.

Whipple, internationally recognized for his work in geomorphology, studies the interaction of climate, tectonics, and surface processes in the sculpting of the Earth's surface. His current research activities focus on the mechanics of river incision, the role of climate variability in landscape evolution, and the expression of tectonic activity in the topography of mountain belts. He has conducted extensive research in such areas as the Tibetan Plateau (China), Himalaya (Nepal and Bhutan), Andes (Peru and Bolivia), Southern Alps (New Zealand), and western North America. His work explores the possible influence of climate-driven erosion on the rate and style of deformation deep in the Earth’s crust and the utility of topographic analyses for identifying seismic hazards in remote, poorly studied regions.

During his career, Whipple’s research contributions have been internationally recognized, including receiving the Bagnold Medal from the European Geosciences Union and being elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America.

The professor's new award is the G.K. Warren Prize, presented every four years for distinguished contributions to river-related geology. Whipple is being honored for his seminal studies on the role of fluvial incision as a key process that links climate, tectonics, and landscape evolution.

Established by Emily B. Warren in memory of her father, the award honors noteworthy and distinguished accomplishment in fluvial geomorphology and closely related aspects of the geological sciences.

“Kelin’s extensive and broad quantification of how a river’s overall form reflects the way tectonic and climatic forces shape the landscape is widely recognized as being among the most influential in the field. Over the past 15 years, Kelin and his students have published about 50 papers quantifying how rivers carve through the Earth’s surface and are the key process connecting the external drivers of climate and tectonics with landscape evolution. His work shows clearly how rivers set the pace for the way that landscapes change over time,” says Arjun Heimsath, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “It is truly inspirational to team-teach classes with Kelin, co-advise PhD students with him, and to be helping shape the direction of a new school with him and our colleagues in SESE.”

Whipple and 15 others receiving NAS awards this year for their extraordinary scientific achievements will be honored in a ceremony April 27 of this year during the academy’s 151st annual meeting. 

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and -- with the National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council -- provides science, technology and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

For more information, please visit:

(Nikki Cassis)



Congratulations to Mingming Li for receiving an Outstanding Student Paper Award (OSPA) for his AGU poster last month. His poster was titled: “Three Dimensional Morphology and Dynamics of Ultra-Low Velocity Zones” and was presented in a Study of the Earth’s Deep Interior session.

Also a round of applause to Marc Neveu for an AGU poster OSPA. Marc’s poster was titled: "Ordinary Stoichiometry of Extraordinary Microbes”, and was presented in a Biogeosciences session.



World’s most powerful exoplanet camera looks skyward

After nearly a decade of development, construction, and testing, the world’s most advanced instrument for directly imaging and analyzing planets around other stars is pointing skyward and collecting light from distant worlds.

The instrument, called the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), was designed, built, and optimized for imaging faint planets next to bright stars and probing their atmospheres. It will also be a powerful tool for studying dusty, planet-forming disks around young stars. It is the most advanced such instrument to be deployed on one of the world’s biggest telescopes – the 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile.

Jennifer Patience, an astrophysicist and associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, has been working with the GPI team for almost 10 years. Her involvement began with contributions to the science case when the project was in the proposal stage, followed by a large scale effort to develop a set of ideal target stars around which to search for planets. Most recently, Patience and her students have been working with the GPI commissioning team on the initial data to help calibrate the instrument and ensure the best performance of the instrument.

Eyes to the sky

Exoplanets are extraordinarily faint and difficult to see next to a bright star. GPI can see planets a million times fainter than their parent stars. GPI detects infrared (heat) radiation from young Jupiter-like planets in wide orbits around other stars, those equivalent to the giant planets in our own Solar System not long after their formation. Every planet GPI sees can be studied in detail.

GPI, an extraordinarily complex astronomical instrument the size of a small car, carried out its first observations last November. Patience and her students worked from ASU with analysis of the initial data taken in November and December.

For GPI’s first observations, the team targeted previously known planetary systems, including the well-known Beta Pictoris system; in it GPI obtained the first-ever spectrum of the very young planet Beta Pictoris b. The team also used the instrument’s polarization mode – which can detect starlight scattered by tiny particles – to study a faint ring of dust orbiting the very young star HR4796A. With previous instruments, only the edges of this dust ring, (which may be the debris remaining from planet formation), could be seen, but with GPI astronomers can follow the entire circumference of the ring.

Although GPI was designed to look at distant planets, it can also observe objects in our Solar System. The accompanying test images of Jupiter’s moon Europa, for example, can allow scientists to map changes in the satellite’s surface composition. The images were released today at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington DC.

“The early science images from GPI are spectacular and are an indication of the discoveries to come from the planet search survey that will commence this year. The ability to both image planets and investigate their atmospheres with a spectrum from GPI is a very exciting combination,” says Patience.

In 2014, the GPI team will begin a large-scale survey, looking at 600 young stars to see what giant planets orbit them. GPI will also be available to the whole Gemini community for other projects, ranging from studies of planet-forming disks to outflows of dust from massive, dying stars. Patience is one of two co-leads for developing the 600-star target list for this upcoming planet search survey.

“My research group and I are looking forward to the upcoming planet search survey. We will use GPI to discover new planets and learn how common giant planets are around stars of different masses and stars that are encircled by dusty disks analogous to the Kuiper belt in the Solar System. Since GPI is both a camera and a spectrograph, we will be able to investigate the atmospheres of detected planets and begin to characterize these other worlds,” explains Patience.

Looking through Earth’s turbulent atmosphere, even with advanced adaptive optics, GPI will only be able to see Jupiter-sized planets. But similar technology is being proposed for future space telescopes, and instruments like GPI are paving the way for a future instrument to image Earth-like planets.

For more information on GPI visit:

Image: Comparison of Europa observed with Gemini Planet Imager in K1 band on the right and visible albedo visualization based on a composite map made from Galileo SSI and Voyager 1 and 2 data (from USGS) on the left. While GPI is not designed for ‘extended’ objects like this, its observations could help in following surface alterations on icy satellites of Jupiter or atmospheric phenomena (e.g. clouds, haze) on Saturn’s moon Titan. The GPI near-infrared color image is a combination of 3 wavelength channels.
Image credit: Processing by Marshall Perrin, Space Telescope, Science Institute and Franck Marchis SETI Institute


The ASU Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) team, led by Professor Mark Robinson, has released images of China's first Moon lander and rover.

Chang'e 3, the Chinese moon lander, arrived on the Moon on Dec. 14, touching down in a region named Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains). The lander carried a six-wheeled rover vehicle on its back known as Yutu ("Jade Rabbit" in English). Soon after landing, the rover was deployed and took its first drive.

At the time of the landing NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's orbit was far from the landing site so images of the landing were not possible. Ten days later on December 24, LRO approached the landing site, and LROC was able to acquire a series of six image pairs during the next 36 hours (19 orbits). The highest resolution image was possible when LRO was nearly overhead on December 25. At this time LRO was at an altitude of ~150 km above the site, and the pixel size was 150 cm.

In the new NASA images, the Chang'e 3 lander and Yutu rover are clearly visible in photos by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO.

Additional imagery and information related to this story are available on the LROC website:

Image: LROC NAC view of the Chang'e 3 lander (large arrow) and rover (small arrow) just before sunset on their first day of lunar exploration. LROC NAC M1142582775R, image width 576 m, north is up [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].


The January/February issue of Discover Magazine highlighted the top 100 science stories in its article “The Year in Science.” The WISSARD Project (short for Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) made the list at #12.

SESE Research Professor Alberto Behar is a WISSARD collaborator. Last year he joined an international Antarctic expedition to investigate a subglacial lake. He brought with him a small robotic sub to help the researchers study one of the last unexplored aquatic environments on Earth. The team drilled thousands of feet into the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to reach a lake buried for millennia.

The article includes an aerial image of the WISSARD drill site over Subglacial Lake Whillans in the article.

Read article


Lillian Ostrach will follow a unique family tradition when she graduates with her doctoral degree in geological sciences from ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE).

She will be hooded while wearing her 90-year-old grandfather’s doctoral regalia during commencement ceremonies. Dr. Simon Ostrach will proudly watch as his granddaughter carries the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences gonfalon during opening ceremonies.

“I am the fourth person in my family to earn a PhD, and the first woman,” she says. “I was raised to value family and family traditions, and one tradition we have is that each PhD wears my grandfather’s doctoral regalia during the commencement ceremonies.”

The regalia was originally purchased in 1950 and worn by her grandfather when he earned a doctoral degree in applied mathematics, and then later worn by her father (neuroscience) and her uncle (comparative pathology).

Science seemed a natural path for Ostrach. “I have always had a love of the outdoors (especially rocks), and from an early age my parents and grandfather exposed me to science and math,” she says. “My father and grandfather both worked for NASA, so space exploration was a large part of my childhood, and I became fascinated (as many young children do) with the planets and workings of the solar system.”

Yet she didn't plan on becoming a geologist or planetary scientist until she took a few geology classes during her undergraduate studies at Brown University.

“I realized my passion. I really wanted to research landforms and geologic processes on other planets.”

After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology, with a focus in planetary geoscience from Brown University, Ostrach decided to complete her doctorate at ASU.

“I was attracted to ASU because, out of all the programs in the country, SESE offered a multi-disciplinary approach to science education. SESE emphasizes collaborations, discussions and education across traditional field boundaries, and I embraced the potential for multi-disciplinary research.”

Ostrach’s research focuses on the impact cratering process, primarily on the moon and Mercury. She completed her investigations using recently acquired images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO, currently in orbit about the Moon) and the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER, currently in orbit about Mercury) missions.

“Investigating the impact cratering process and the impact cratering record is integral to understanding early solar system history, including early Earth, and the geologic processes that shape the surfaces of rocky planets and icy satellites.”

Recognition of Ostrach’s talents has been extensive. She has presented at international conferences, including the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, and received the ASU SESE Rock Star Geology Student Award in 2011, the SESE Graduate Student Merit Award in 2010, and received travel grants for field workshops and conferences. Participation in workshops and field camps enhanced her skills and knowledge in planetary volcanism and impact cratering.

As a scientist, she believes in the importance of outreach to make science more accessible to the public. As a woman in science, she wants to inspire young girls and young women to explore opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Volunteer and outreach activities have been frequent during her studies at ASU, including SESE open houses, the Phoenix Zoo Prowl and Play, Hands-On Science Days, guest lectures for groups and K-12 teacher workshops.

Ostrach will begin a postdoc fellowship at the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Facility in early January, where she will continue studies of the impact cratering process.

“I can expand a comparative planetology investigation included in my thesis to the global scale, in addition to beginning new projects with my new advisor and colleagues.”

Extracurricular activities include eclectic tastes, extending from being an avid reader of many genres to Broadway musicals, weight lifting, swimming, baking and crocheting. “However, if you asked my friends, they would all say that I’m a huge 'Doctor Who' fan.” The popular sci-fi television show inspired a collection of Doctor Who items that she owns or has made, and even a Doctor Who-themed wedding.

“Writing a dissertation is a lonely process,” she says, “but earning a PhD is essentially a group effort.” Ostrach mentions a very long list of people who provided help, friendship and guidance, including ASU staff, faculty, fellow graduate students and postdocs.

“A few key people must be named because they were instrumental along the path: my advisor, Dr. Mark Robinson, who taught me how to be a better scientist; my parents, who prompted me to follow my dreams no matter how far away or 'out there'; my sister Sarah, who supported me through the good, bad and ugly of graduate school; my husband Jack, who waited for me for eight long years of long-distance; and lastly, my Grandpa, who inspired me to follow a path of my choosing.”

Photo: Lillian Ostrach will follow a unique family tradition when she graduates with her doctoral degree in geological sciences. “I am the fourth person in my family to earn a PhD, and the first woman,” she says.
Photo by: Lillian Ostrach at Meteor Crater Field Camp (2010, Meteor Crater, Arizona)

(Michele St George)



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