News and Updates


On March 1, SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space) had the honor of being invited to a special luncheon sponsored by the Barrett Honors College and TEDx, featuring Astronaut Cady Coleman. After being introduced by Barbara Barrett (who has also been trained as an astronaut), she gave a very entertaining and informative talk, regarding life in space during her six-month mission to the International Space Station (ISS) during Expedition 27.

Focusing mainly on the scientific research performed on the ISS, Coleman gave an overview of the various types of research the astronauts do.  From fluid dynamics to combustion, there is quite a bit that goes on in the orbiting laboratory. She even cited some exciting research being done in collaboration with ASU’s very own Biodesign Institute.  The work being performed on the ISS provides great insight into aspects of nature that cannot be observed under the effects of gravity.  Flames behave differently, and perfect crystals can be grown in the microgravity environment. Coleman mentioned her favorite experiments to perform involved fluid dynamics, and when she performed certain tasks, such as adding air to the fluid, the fluid did not behave as the scientists back on Earth predicted.  There are many questions still waiting to be solved, thanks to our astronauts on the ISS.

Coleman also shared a fun video of her playing a flute duet with the legendary Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, while she was in space and he was on Earth!  After her talk, she had a Q&A period, and the students attending had the opportunity to ask her their own questions of what it was like to live in space. She even stayed to meet each of us in person, when all our questions were answered.

This is actually second time SEDS has had the opportunity to meet Cady Coleman. We were invited to meet her at a similar luncheon two years ago, before her most recent trip to space.  Like last time, she was an overall wonderful person and always a pleasure to meet. We at SEDS would like to thank Dr. Coleman for visiting ASU once again and sharing with us her spectacular experiences. We wish her well on all her future endeavors!

Jim Crowell


Ten years ago, on February 19, 2002, the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), a multi-band camera on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter, began scientific operations at the Red Planet. Since then the camera has circled Mars nearly 45,000 times and taken more than half a million images at infrared and visible wavelengths.

"THEMIS has proven itself a workhorse," says Philip Christensen, the camera's designer and principal investigator. Christensen is a Regents' Professor of geological sciences in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, part of Arizona State University's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "It's especially gratifying to me to see the range of discoveries that have been made using this instrument."

Highlights of science results by THEMIS over the past 10 years include:

* Confirming that hematite is widespread on Meridiani Planum, which led NASA to send one of its Mars Exploration Rovers there

* Discovering CO2 gas jets at the south polar ice cap in spring

* Discovering chloride salt deposits across the planet

* Making the best global image map of Mars ever done

* Identifying safe landing sites for NASA's Mars Phoenix spacecraft by finding the locations with the fewest hazardous boulders

* Monitoring dust activity in the Martian atmosphere

* Discovering that a large impact crater, Aram Chaos, once contained a lake

* Discovering that Mars has more water-carved channels than previously thought

* Discovering dacite on Mars, a more evolved form of volcanic lava not previously known on the Red Planet

THEMIS combines a 5-wavelength visual imaging system with a 9-wavelength infrared imaging system. By comparing daytime and nighttime infrared images of an given area, scientists can determine many of the physical properties of the rocks and soils on the ground.

Mars Odyssey has a two-hour orbit that is nearly "Sun-synchronous,"
meaning that Odyssey passes over the same part of Mars at roughly the same local time each day. In September 2008 its orbit was shifted toward an earlier time of day, which enhanced THEMIS' mineralogical detection capability.

Says Christensen, "Both Odyssey and THEMIS are in excellent health and we look forward to years more science with them."

NASA launched the Mars Odyssey spacecraft April 7, 2001, and it arrived at Mars October 24, 2001. On arrival the spacecraft spent several months in a technique called aerobraking, which involved dipping into the Martian atmosphere to adjust its orbit. In February 2002, science operations began.

The Mars Odyssey project is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft, and JPL and Lockheed Martin collaborate on operating it.

Caption 1: This was the first science image of Mars taken by THEMIS, February 19, 2002. It shows an area in Acheron Fossae, north of the giant volcano Olympus Mons, where mesas and valleys lie bounded by geologic faults. The image (V00816002) shows an area 11 x 6 miles (19 x 9 km); the smallest details visible in the original image are 59 feet (18 meters) wide. Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University

Caption 2: Taken on THEMIS' 10th anniversary, this image shows a region on Mars in Nepenthes Mensae, part of Terra Cimmeria. The view depicts a knobby landscape where the southern highlands are breaking up as the terrain descends into the northern lowlands. The image (V45173011) covers 11 x 32 miles (19 x 52 km); the smallest details visible in the original image are 59 feet (18 meters) wide. Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University


(Robert Burnham)



Sumner Starrfield, Regents’ Professor of Astrophysics in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, is part of an international team that has, for the first time, discovered buckyballs in a solid form in space. Prior to this discovery, the microscopic carbon spheres had been found only in gas form in the cosmos.

Formally named buckminsterfullerene, buckyballs are named after their resemblance to the late architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. They are made up of 60 carbon atoms arranged into a hollow sphere, like a soccer ball.

In the latest discovery, scientists used data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to detect tiny particles consisting of stacked buckyballs. They found the particles around a pair of stars called “XX Ophiuchi” that are 6,500 light-years from Earth, and detected enough to fill the equivalent in volume to 10,000 Mount Everests.

“These buckyballs are stacked together to form a solid, like oranges in a crate,” said Nye Evans of Keele University in England, lead author of a paper appearing in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. “The particles we detected are minuscule, far smaller than the width of a hair, but each one would contain stacks of millions of buckyballs.”

Buckyballs were detected definitively in space for the first time by Spitzer in 2010. Spitzer later identified the molecules in a host of different cosmic environments. It even found them in staggering quantities, the equivalent in mass to 15 Earth moons, in a nearby galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud.

In all of those cases, the molecules were in the form of gas. The recent discovery of buckyballs particles means that large quantities of these molecules must be present in some stellar environments in order to link up and form solid particles. The research team was able to identify the solid form of buckyballs in the Spitzer data because they emit light in a unique way that differs from the gaseous form.

Starrfield, who has been using Spitzer to obtain infrared spectra of a number of recent stars, including XX Ophiuchi, was involved in writing the proposal to conduct the observations with Spitzer. He also was involved in analyzing and interpreting the data. The team chose XX Ophiuchi because it was already known to be a puzzling system of stars. Although the researchers did not expect to find buckyballs, they performed an extremely careful analysis of the light emitted by this stellar system and were on the alert for any unusual signals.

Starrfield has been using Spitzer because “its infrared detectors are superb for studying cold objects in the universe, much colder than our own Sun. We had known that buckyball molecules had been discovered around a few other stars but never expected to find them collected together in small particles.” According to Starrfield, “We have now identified features in the infrared that convince us that solid buckyball particles exist. Astronomers can now search for these same features in other stars that emit infrared light and hopefully find a lot of these particles.”

Buckyballs have been found on Earth in various forms. They form as a gas from burning candles and exist as solids in certain types of rock, such as the mineral shungite found in Russia, and fulgurite, a glassy rock from Colorado that forms when lightning strikes the ground. In a test tube, the solids take on the form of dark, brown “goo.”

“Buckyballs were studied by Sumio Ijima, a solid state physicist in Japan who was actually at ASU from 1970 to 1982,” says Starrfield. “So, we were pleased to continue his studies in space. They have been under continuous study for decades with possible uses in drug delivery and armor.”

“The window Spitzer provides into the infrared universe has revealed beautiful structure on a cosmic scale,” said Bill Danchi, Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “In yet another surprise discovery from the mission, we’re lucky enough to see elegant structure at one of the smallest scales, teaching us about the internal architecture of existence.”


Caption: NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has detected the solid form of buckyballs in space for the first time. To form a solid particle, the buckyballs must stack together, as illustrated in this artist’s concept showing the very beginnings of the process. The buckyball particles were spotted around a small, hot star -- a member of a pair of stars, called XX Ophiuchi, located 6,500 light-years from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


(Nikki Cassis)


New images acquired by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft show that the Moon’s crust is pulling apart – at least in some small areas. High-resolution images obtained by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) provide evidence that the Moon has experienced relatively recent geologic activity.

In new LROC images, a team of researchers discovered small, narrow trenches typically only hundreds to a few thousand meters (yards) long and tens to hundreds of meters wide, indicating the lunar crust is being pulled apart at these locations. These linear troughs or valleys, known as graben, are formed when crust is stretched, breaks and drops down along two bounding faults. A handful of these graben systems have been found across the lunar surface. The team proposes that the geologic activity that created the graben occurred less than 50 million years ago (very recent compared to the Moon’s current age of over 4.5 billion years).

In August, 2010, the team identified physical signs of contraction on the lunar surface, in the form of lobe-shaped ridges or scarps (known as lobate scarps), using LROC images. They suggest that these scarps indicate the Moon shrank globally in the geologically recent past and might still be shrinking today. The team saw these scarps widely distributed across the Moon and concluded that it was shrinking as the interior slowly cooled. The new images of graben therefore present a contradiction – regions of the lunar crust that are being pulled apart as the Moon shrinks. 

“We think the Moon is in a general state of global contraction due to cooling of a still hot interior. The graben tell us that forces acting to shrink the Moon were overcome in places by forces acting to pull it apart,” said Thomas Watters of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, lead author of a paper on this research appearing in the March issue of the journal Nature Geoscience. “This means the contractional forces shrinking the Moon cannot be large, or the small graben might never form.”

The small graben indicate that contractional forces in the lunar crust are relatively weak. The weak contraction indicates that unlike the terrestrial planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars – the Moon did not completely melt in the very early stages of its evolution. Instead, an alternative scenario better fits the observations: only the Moon’s exterior initially melted forming a magma ocean.

“It was a big surprise when I spotted graben in the farside highlands!” said Mark Robinson of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, coauthor and principal investigator of LROC. “I immediately targeted the area for high resolution stereo images so we could create a 3-dimensional view of the graben. It’s exciting when you discover something total unexpected. Only about half the lunar surface has been imaged in high resolution. There is much more of the Moon to be explored.”

As the LRO mission progresses and coverage increases, scientists will have a better picture of how common are these young graben, and more importantly what other types of tectonic features are nearby. The number of graben systems the team finds may help scientists refine the state of stress in the lunar crust.

(Nikki Cassis)

Photo 1: Newly detected series of narrow linear troughs are known as graben, and they formed in highland materials on the lunar farside. Forces acting to pull the lunar crust apart formed the Virtanen graben, informally named for a nearby impact crater. These graben are located on a topographic rise with several hundred meters of relief revealed in topography derived from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) stereo images (blues are lower elevations and reds are higher elevations). The rise is flanked by the rim of a ~2.5 km diameter degraded crater. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University/Smithsonian Institution

Photo 2: A series of graben in a patch of mare basalts that occupy a valley south of Mare Humorum cut across and deformed several small diameter impact craters. The walls and floors of the graben crosscut a degraded 27 m diameter crater (inset, upper white arrow) and a 7 m diameter crater (inset, lower white arrow). Since small craters only have a limited lifetime before they are destroyed by other impacts, their deformation by graben indicates that these fault-bound troughs are relatively young. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University/Smithsonian Institution


In an article titled, "Russian hot springs point to rocky origins for life," New Scientist writer Colin Barras tackles the question that strikes at the very heart of one of the deepest mysteries in the universe: how did life begin on Earth? New findings challenge the widespread view that it all kicked off in the oceans, around deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Life may have begun on land instead – just as Darwin thought

Although conventional wisdom has it that hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor offered an ideal chemical environment for the earliest life, Paul Knauth, a geologist in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration, thinks life may not have begun in the sea. "The early ocean was a deathtrap of hot salty water," he says. "I like the idea of a non-marine origin."

Knauth has analyzed the oxygen isotopes in the silica-rich rocks deposited early in Earth's history, from which you can work out temperatures at the time the rocks formed. He says that the entire planet was much hotter than anyone suspected – surface temperatures of 50 to 80 0C may have been common. The seas were also twice as salty as today, because so-called "evaporitic" deposits - which locked away vast quantities of salt - had not begun to form.

Read the full article here


In many ways, soil is fundamental to life. Flora and fauna depend on its presence for their survival as much as they depend on water and air. In order to sustain its soil content, an ecosystem needs to maintain a balance between rates of soil erosion and soil production. Factors such as tectonic plate movement or climate change can tip this balance, and learning how such changes affect soil cover is crucial to our understanding of how the Earth’s surface works.

In a series of studies appearing in the journals Nature Geoscience, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, and Earth and Planetary Science Letters, researchers at Arizona State University are providing new insights into how soil production processes respond to erosion in mountainous regions.

The studies utilized an ideal natural laboratory in the San Gabriel Mountains, a region in southern California, where previous work quantified a large range of erosion rates.

In the study released Feb. 5 in Nature Geoscience, Arjun Heimsath, associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and co-authors measured soil production rates across the large gradient in erosion rates. Previous models suggested that once soil production rates reach a certain rate, they remain constant even if background erosion rates continue increasing. After making their measurements, the team recorded soil production rates that far exceeded this model’s upper limit of soil production; contrary to previously held popular belief, the team found that soil production rates can keep up with very rapid erosion rates.

“One reason why this data is so exciting is because the previous way that we and other people viewed the world — the previous conceptual framework — was that there was an upper limit of soil production,” said Heimsath. “There was thought to be a maximum possible rate of soil production and anything above that was not possible. We’ve found that the landscape is responding to this higher erosion rate by producing soil more rapidly, and that makes us rethink the way that we have believed the Earth’s surface is responding to changes.”

In a second study, in press in Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, led by Roman DiBiase, a recent doctoral student of SESE professors Whipple and Heimsath, the team developed a new method for determining where bedrock emerges in a landscape. Stitching together a series of high-resolution photographs and magnifying the composite image to compare with high-resolution topographic data and field observations, the researchers developed a method to accurately predict rock exposure from remotely sensed data. They used this technique to examine the details of the landscape’s progression from soil to exposed rock in DiBiase’s study, and also applied the technique for use in Heimsath’s paper.

A third study, soon to appear in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, examined the relationship between chemical weathering — how rainfall chemically erodes a landscape — and erosion rates. The study’s lead author, Jean Dixon, previously a postdoctoral researcher with Heimsath, found that chemical weathering rates increased along with soil erosion rates up to a certain maximum limit, after which point chemical weathering rates decreased even as soil erosion rates continued to rise. This phenomenon was predicted in a previous model, but this study marks the first time field-based data and observations verified the model.

“Because of doing the studies in the exact same place, we now have the ability to know how soil production is related to chemical weathering,” said Heimsath. “And that’s the next step, to really put them together even more clearly.”

One interesting question the research raises is whether soil production rates do not have an upper limit, or whether the upper limit is just far higher than previously thought.

The team is also interested in pinpointing the mechanisms that explain their observations—how the landscape manages to keep up its rate of soil production with such rapid erosion rates. One hypothesis is that the biology of the landscape—the flora and fauna that are responsible for and dependent on much of the soil produced in mountainous regions—are working harder to maintain soil production rates to keep pace with erosion. Heimsath said that finding the answers to these questions will be the researchers’ next endeavor.

“The presence of soil sustains our ecosystems,” said Heimsath. “It sustains vegetation, and all the life that exists in mountainous regions. Understanding what sets the upper limit of soil cover is really important to understanding what can sustain life in some of these landscapes.”

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation with a grant to Whipple and Heimsath.

A team comprised of Roman DiBiase (left), a recent SESE doctoral student of SESE, and professors Arjun Heimsath (middle) and Kelin Whipple (right), conducted research in the San Gabriel Mountains, a region in southern California. Their research provides new insights into how soil production processes respond to erosion.


(Victoria Miluch)



Internationally-recognized artist Miguel Palma (Lisbon, Portugal) has been commissioned by the ASU Art Museum’s Desert Initiative to develop a mobile project that explores our connection to the desert environment.
In collaboration with ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) and other community partners, Palma will convert a former military vehicle for use to photograph and film natural desert environments. The vehicle will return to urban settings at night to project the recorded imagery on building facades and other sites.
To launch the collaborative project, Palma and SESE will host an exhibition as part of the Arizona SciTech Festival First Friday Art + Science event on Feb. 3, which takes place in conjunction with the First Friday artwalk in downtown Phoenix (details about the Feb. 3 event are here: The public will have an opportunity to interact with a full-scale autonomous rover (RAVEN) designed and built by SESE students.
RAVEN (Robotic Assist Vehicle for Extraterrestrial Navigation) is a three-wheel, 330-pound (150-kg) rover that can traverse 20 degree slopes and is able to travel at speeds up to three feet/second (1m/s). It has Visible and Near-Infrared cameras that are functionally similar to the cameras on the Mars rovers. These are able to photograph the environment and build maps. Combined with its ability to carry experiments, samples and tools, RAVEN makes an ideal robotic field assistant for astronaut-scientists for exploring Moon, Mars and other planetary bodies.
A model of Palma’s project will be on display along with information from SESE at the Regular Gallery, 918 N. Sixth St., in Phoenix, from Feb. 3 through Feb. 24.
Image: A 330-pound, three-wheel rover, which can travel at speeds up to three feet/second and traverse 20-degree slopes, has been commissioned by the ASU Art Museum as part of a project to explore our connection to the desert environment. Image copyright: Miguel Palma

(Susan Felt)


Just how big can mammals get and how fast can they get there? These are questions examined by an international team of researchers exploring increases in mammal size after the dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago.

Research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows it took about 10 million generations for terrestrial mammals to hit their maximum mass – that is about the size of a rabbit evolving to the size of an elephant.

The interdisciplinary team of 20 biologists and paleontologists was led by Alistair Evans, a research fellow at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), and included Jordan Okie, an exploration postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

The team also discovered that it took only about one hundred thousand generations for very large decreases, such as extreme dwarfism, to occur.

“The new method we developed allowed us to quantitatively demonstrate a fundamental asymmetry in macroevolution that has long been suspected – that large decreases in sizes can occur much more quickly than large increases,” says Okie, who investigates the constraints on the evolution and distribution of metabolic diversity, the diversity of metabolic pathways and lifestyles employed by living organisms.

“Our work demonstrates, for the first time, how quickly the major changes in body size have happened in the history of mammals,” says Evans, an evolutionary biologist.

“Most previous work has focused on microevolution, the small changes that occur within a species. Instead, we concentrated on large-scale changes in body size. We can now show that it took at least 24 million generations to make the proverbial mouse-to-elephant size change – a massive change, but also a very long time.”

The research team looked at 28 different groups of mammals from the four largest continents (Africa, Eurasia, and North and South America) and all ocean basins for during the last 70 million years. These groups included elephants, rhinos, hippos, carnivores and whales.

When they looked at whales living in the sea, they found that it took only half the number of generations to change the same amount. “This is probably because it’s easier to be big in the water – the water helps support your weight,” says Erich Fitzgerald, a curator in paleontology at Melbourne Museum and a co-author on the study.

Researchers were surprised to learn how quickly body size decreased: the rate is more than 10 times faster than the increases.

“The huge difference in rates for getting smaller and getting bigger is really astounding – we certainly never expected it could happen so fast!” says Evans, whose area of expertise is the evolution of mammals. These miniature animals include many on islands, such as the dwarf mammoth, dwarf hippo and dwarf ‘hobbit’ hominids, found in the Indonesian island of Flores. “Why did they all get so much smaller? When you do get smaller, you need less food and can reproduce faster, which are real advantages on small islands,” adds Evans.

“Through an elegant mathematical solution, we also developed a new method for investigating dynamics in the evolution of body size,” says Okie. “The method addresses a previously unanalyzed issue and is straightforward for scientists to adopt in their own research.”

Researchers used number of generations instead of years in their study because species have different lifespans. Small mammals do not live as long, but reproduce faster, than larger mammals, so using generation time allowed the researchers to compare the rates of evolutionary change among very small and very large animals.

This research will help scientists to better understand mammal evolution: what conditions allow certain mammals to thrive and grow bigger and what conditions would slow the pace of increase and potentially contribute to extinction.

Understanding the evolution of metabolic diversity is also of relevance to astrobiology and the biogeosciences because metabolism sustains life's complex physiochemical structures and it governs the biochemical transformation of geological systems.

The work was funded by a research coordination grant from the US National Science Foundation.


Caption: Jordan Okie, a biologist by training, helped develop quantitative theory showing how metabolism influences the speed and mode of body size evolution in diversifying groups of organisms. Such theory can contribute to understanding the kinetic constraints on the rate of the evolution of biological complexity from tiny bacteria to giant multicellular plants and animals, and thus to understanding the history of life that transformed the Earth system.


The Dust Devils Microgravity Team made up of Arizona State University undergraduate students has been selected to fly in NASA’s 2012 Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. One of only 14 teams across the nation selected for the highly competitive program, the ASU students will fly in June on the Weightless Wonder, the airplane run by NASA that provides zero gravity.

The Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program provides a unique academic experience for undergraduate students to successfully propose, design, fabricate, fly and assess a reduced gravity experiment of their choice over the course of six months. The experience includes scientific research, hands-on experimental design, test operations and educational/public outreach activities.

The Dust Devils Microgravity Team is composed of five student flyers and two faculty advisers from the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU. The team is headed by Pye Pye Zaw (Earth and Space Exploration) and includes Jacob Higgins (Earth and Space Exploration), Dani Hoots (Earth and Space Exploration, History, Anthropology), Emily McBryan (Aerospace Engineering, Astronautics) and Amy Kaczmarowski (Earth and Space Exploration and Aerospace Engineering).

The Dust Devils propose to utilize the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program to observe the coagulation of dust particles in microgravity environments, as a function of factors such as size and composition.

Associate professor Steve Desch advised the students on how to conduct the science experiment, background literature and the implications for understanding solar system formation (coagulation is how planets start). Assistant professor Chris Groppi advised them on the design of the instrument, the format of the proposal, and preparation of a project budget, among other things.

“We are looking at the electrostatic properties of different variations of dust particles to better understand what causes the attraction that allows for these sets of particles to coagulate in the absence of gravity,” explains Zaw. “Understanding this is important because it answers some questions about the interstellar medium, and in addition NASA is interested because this relationship may be harmful or beneficial to rover missions to places such as Mars where there are dust devils displaying some similar effects.”

Microgravity is absolutely necessary to study this because gravity will overwhelm the weaker forces in dust coagulation.

In addition, this experiment will include a simulation of a protoplanetary disk environment by testing coagulation of meteorite powders. The powders are being donated by the Center for Meteorite Studies at ASU, courtesy of its director, Meenakshi Wadhwa, also a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Better understanding of the coagulation mechanism of small particles in zero gravity will provide insight into the formation of planets from proto-planetary disks as well as the charging effects of particles on planetary surfaces.

The team will use the next six months to collect funds, build the experiment test structure, and prepare the experiment for flight week.

“We have a lot of outreach, fundraising and experiment safety preps to do between now and June in addition to physically building our experiments,” says Zaw. Although the cost of the microgravity flight is covered by NASA, the students will have to raise money to pay for their trip, hotel and supplies. “We’ve raised about 54 percent of the $13,000 we need.”

ASU/NASA Space Grant has supported the Reduced Gravity Flight Program in years past, and will be supporting more than 50 percent of the cost for the Dust Devils Microgravity Team for this year’s competition. Three of the team members, Zaw, McBryan, and Kaczmarowski are current and past Space Grant interns.

The Dust Devils will also be participating in various outreach events throughout the state to promote interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for the Reduced Gravity Flight Program. In addition to hands-on outreach activities, the team has also created a website that includes a resource page for educators with “How To’s” on performing simple gravity simulations, models, and experiments in their classrooms.

In June, the students will report to Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston to test their hypothesis aboard NASA’s Weightless Wonder, a modified McDonnell Douglas DC-9 jetliner that takes 45-degree nosedives to simulate zero gravity. The reduced gravity aircraft generally flies 30 parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico. This parabolic pattern provides about 30 seconds of hypergravity (about 1.8-2g’s) as the plane climbs to the top of the parabola. Once the plane starts to “nose over” the top of the parabola to descend toward Earth, the plane experiences about 18 seconds of microgravity (0g).

The students will spend nine days on-site at JSC learning about NASA, undergoing physical training and performing their experiments aboard the Weightless Wonder. The program tries to put students through the same procedures as those followed by full-time professional research scientists.

“This was a motivated, hard-working group of students,” says Desch. “We are very proud of this success.”

The ASU team was among 14 teams selected from 60 that applied. Other teams selected include those from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University. The Dust Devils Microgravity Team is the fifth such team ever selected from ASU. Other ASU teams participated in the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program in 1999, 2001, 2002, and 2003 and were supported by the ASU/NASA Space Grant Program.


Caption: The Dust Devils Microgravity Team made up of five Arizona State University undergraduate students has been selected to fly in NASA’s 2012 Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. Front (L to R): Jacob Higgins (Earth and Space Exploration) and associate professor Steve Desch. Back (L to R): Dani Hoots (Earth and Space Exploration, History, Anthropology), Pye Pye Zaw (Earth and Space Exploration), Emily McBryan (Aerospace Engineering, Astronautics) and Amy Kaczmarowski (Earth and Space Exploration and Aerospace Engineering). Credit: Craig Michael Hoots


(Nikki Cassis)


Arizona State University’s Center for Meteorite Studies has acquired a significant new sample for its collection, a rare martian meteorite that fell in southern Morocco in July 2011. It is the first martian fall in around fifty years.

Since the observed fall of the famed Ensisheim meteorite in 1492, there have been around 1,200 recovered meteorite falls. A “fall” is a meteorite that was witnessed by someone as it fell from the sky, whereas a “find” is a meteorite that was not observed to fall but was later found and collected. Only a handful of witnessed meteorite falls occur each year.

The chance of finding a meteorite is exceedingly small. The chance of witnessing a meteorite fall and finding it is even smaller – and the probability that the fall is a martian meteorite is smaller yet.

“Martian falls are extremely rare. Less than 0.5% of falls are martians,” says Laurence Garvie, collection manager for the center. “This new sample is probably one of our most prized pieces and without a doubt one of the most significant additions to our collection in several decades.”

Consisting of specimens from around 1,700 separate meteorite falls and finds, meteorites in the center’s collection represent samples collected from every part of the world. Most meteorites found on Earth come from the asteroid belt, but some from the Moon and Mars exist as well. These rare samples constitute a small but important part of the center’s collection.

While a few new Martian meteorite finds are reported each year, there have been only four recovered martian falls prior to 2011. Fragments of the planet Mars landed in the village of Chassigny, France, in 1815. Another fell on Shergotty, India, in 1865, and a third landed at Nakhla, Egypt, in 1911. The fourth fell in Zagami, Nigeria, in 1962. The center’s newly acquired sample, named Tissint, is a significant meteorite as it is the only the fifth known Mars meteorite fall. The center holds small research and display pieces of each of the known martian falls and also has six martian finds in its collection. There are a total of 61 known distinct Mars meteorites.

To date, nearly 7 kilograms of stones have been collected from last summer’s martian meteorite fall in Morocco. The 349 gram sample the center received is one of the largest from the fall, and is by far the center’s largest Martian meteorite.

“As far as I am aware, this stone is currently the largest one from this fall in any research collection at a museum or university in the US,” says Meenakshi “Mini” Wadhwa, director of the center and a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “This is an important meteorite for our collection from the research and education standpoint. We plan to study it in our laboratories here at ASU to understand how and when it was formed on the planet Mars. We also intend to let students and the public enjoy it by highlighting it in a special display when the center moves to the new Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV this spring, which will house the center's offices, meteorite preparation labs, a state-of-the-art collection storage vault and expanded gallery space for public viewing.”

With the main stone to be used on display, another smaller 21-gram sample will be used for research studies.

For more information on the Tissint meteorite, available here

Listen to Mini's interview on KNAU/NPR

Image credit: Laurence Garvie

(Nikki Cassis)