News and Updates


Solar flares are nothing to be ignored. They can be signs of the formation of gigantic solar storms that could propel powerful electromagnetic bursts of charged particles from the Sun to collide with our planet’s magnetic field.

The result might be widespread electrical power blackouts across the globe. Large swaths of the wired world would instantly become unwired. Collateral damage could be severe enough to put large segments of the population at risk of being without some life-sustaining resources.

Avoiding such catastrophe may depend in large part on better understanding solar flare behavior and increasing the ability to forecast when flares might signal impending solar superstorms that could have an impact on Earth.

A group of Arizona State University engineering and business students hope to play a role in advancing knowledge about solar flares.

Their Sun Devil Satellite 1 project is aimed at providing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a small satellite equipped with components designed to help study flares during their formative stages.

Preparing for launch

The venture began in the summer of 2009 after Aaron Goldstein – then a freshman beginning studies in aerospace engineering and aeronautics in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering – landed an internship in the satellite systems engineering department of General Dynamics corporation.

His experience there motivated him to organize some fellow undergraduates to enter competition sponsored by the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics. They designed a satellite mission to monitor space weather effects on the Earth’s magnetic field.

The team didn’t win the competition but it did develop a cost-effective satellite design proposal that eventually would be the basis for a joint venture with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Facility.

A year later, at the start of the fall 2010 semester, Goldstein again gathered fellow students to organize the Sun Devil Satellite Laboratory. Within several months they attracted the attention of a solar science research team at NASA’s Goddard center with their ideas for an earth-imaging satellite. That in turn led to a new effort, the Sun Devil Satellite 1 mission focusing on observation of the Sun.

The mission team has since completed successful preliminary NASA design reviews and is planning to have a satellite built in time for a projected 2015 launch.

The group is developing the Flare Initiation Doppler Imager as the main instrument to be attached to the roughly nine-pound satellite, and is building the platform on which the imager will operate.

If it works as planned, the imager will take rapid-fire photos of the Sun to capture solar flares as they emerge. The data it collects could aid research to predict the intensity of flares and forecast potential impacts on the Earth.

Procuring resources

The project has been not only an engineering effort but a lesson in assembling the resources necessary to sustain an ambitious research and technology development endeavor.

The students have had to embark on some business networking to secure the necessary technology industry support.

Space and rocket systems company Orbital Sciences provided some high-precision instruments for testing satellite components, and mentoring from company engineers.

The Microchip company donated electronic components. SolidWorks provided computer-aided design software. Analytic Graphics (AGI) donated spacecraft design software.

The team’s progress and enthusiasm prompted engineering schools’ administrators and faculty to help find the students lab space and provide mentoring.

Those benefactors included Paul Johnson, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, associate dean of student and academics affairs James Collofello, along with Kyle Squires, director of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy and Valana Wells, chair of the mechanical and aerospace engineering program.

Additional guidance came from assistant professor Christopher Groppi and professor Srikanth Saripalli in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Support also came through Goldstein’s NASA Space Grant, part of a program that provides paid internships for qualified students pursuing careers in science and engineering fields.

“It’s kind of remarkable what we’re accomplishing, considering it started with a small group of people who just thought it might be interesting to try to build a little satellite,” he says.

Facing real-world challenges

Goldstein’s first student internship with General Dynamics turned into an internship with Orbital Sciences when in 2010 Orbital acquired the General Dynamics department in which he was interning.

He continued the internship at Orbital throughout his undergraduate years at ASU, and after graduation this spring was hired full time to work in the company’s systems engineering department, supporting its satellite technology operations.

Goldstein wants to use his experience in satellite and electronics design to someday start his own aerospace and electrical engineering design company.

Since the start of the Sun Devil Satellite 1 project, he estimates that more than 70 ASU engineering students have made at least some small contribution to the effort, but a group of 12 have been the prime movers.

One of them, senior aerospace engineering major Christopher Kady, says the satellite lab has provided him and fellow project members with invaluable experience in applying classroom lessons to real-world engineering challenges.

Kady is leading work on the satellite’s attitude-control subsystem, which enables the satellite to rotate in space and position itself appropriately to view its target – in this case, the Sun.

Cady and Goldstein exhibited the lab’s work on the system earlier this year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop. (A CubeSat is a miniature satellite designed to gather research data in space.)

Goldstein plans to stay on with the project as its primary industry adviser at least until the Satellite 1 launch by NASA.

By that time, he says he hopes the Sun Devil Satellite Laboratory will be taking on new challenges and establishing ASU as a center of student-led satellite research and development.

(Joe Kullman)


Adults Night Out (18 and older)
Friday, July 6, 7-8 p.m.
Arizona Science Center (600 E. Washington Street, Phoenix)
Campus: Off-campus
Cost: Free

What Have We Learned About Earth’s Closest Planet Neighbor, Mars?”
This visual tour of our solar system focuses on recent findings about Mars through the wealth of data provided by spacecraft in the past decade. New and exciting discoveries paint Mars as an active and potentially habitable world.

Christopher Edwards is a doctoral candidate in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, who will begin postdoctoral research at the California Institute of Technology in the fall. During nine years at ASU, he has worked to characterize the early history of Mars using infrared spectroscopy from orbiting spacecraft and the Mars Exploration Rovers. In efforts to understand data gathered from spacecraft and land rovers on Mars, he has built a laboratory infrared spectrometer, used Earth-based Mars analogs and Earth-orbiting satellites. His field observations have taken him to sites in the western United States, Hawaii, Spain and the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan.

For more information


Four ASU graduate students have received NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowships (NESSF) for research work in the area of planetary science. The ASU recipients, all in the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE), were awarded fellowships in the planetary science division. A total of 95 applications for planetary science were received, with 34 selected for award. The fact that 12 percent of the successful applications came from ASU is impressive and highlights the strong earth and space science research program on the campus.

The fellowships, given to support outstanding students pursuing graduate degrees in basic and applied research in Earth and space sciences, were awarded to: Cameron Mercer, Karen Rieck, Curtis Williams and Nathan Williams. All four students are pursuing doctorates in geological sciences.

Three former recipients of this award, SESE students Melissa Bunte, Matt Sanborn and Lev Spivak-Birndorf, will be graduating from ASU this year. Another former SESE graduate student, Gregory Brennecka (Ph.D., 2011), was also a recipient of this award.

“These fellowships recognize several of the outstanding students that we have in SESE’s doctoral program,” says Kip Hodges, director of the school. “We are extremely proud of the accomplishments and exceptional work being carried out by these individuals recognized through this prestigious fellowship program.”

The fellowship program is a competitive award that speaks highly of each student’s work, as well as their advisors. Awards of $30,000 per year are made for up to three years, contingent upon satisfactory progress, as reflected in academic performance, research progress, and recommendation by the faculty advisor, and the availability of funds.

Cameron Mercer, who plans to continue studying planetary science as a professor or research scientist and would like to become an astronaut, will be analyzing Apollo 16 impact melts to better understand their complex thermal histories, and to clarify and expand upon previous impact chronologies of the Apollo 16 site. One of the highest priorities for NASA in lunar science is to establish an absolute chronology of lunar impact events, with significant implications for the bombardment history of the Earth and other planets of the inner Solar System.

“I am excited to have the opportunity to work with Apollo samples, and to contribute to a project that is considered one of NASA’s top goals in lunar science,” says Mercer. “This research will provide me with invaluable experience as I pursue my career goals.”

Karen Rieck is working to place better constraints on the minor element composition of the solar wind through the analysis of collector wafers that flew on NASA’s Genesis spacecraft. To accomplish this, she will be interacting with analysts on the Genesis science team to obtain, prepare, and analyze samples using secondary ion mass spectrometry to measure solar wind elemental fluences in Genesis’s collector wafers.

“Through this project I can work directly with samples returned by Genesis,” says Rieck. “The research that NESSF will be supporting is perfectly in-line with my dream for a career centered on investigating planetary geology and cosmochemistry. I hope that the experience I gain studying solar wind prepares me for researching other materials collected in future sample-return missions.”

Curtis Williams applies geochemical techniques to understand the dynamics of the early Solar System. With recent analytical advances, scientists are now able to obtain essential chemical and isotopic measurements on extremely rare and valuable planetary materials while still preserving the majority of such samples for additional analyses. He will be developing and utilizing state-of-the-art isotope analysis techniques for in situ measurement of the Ti and Mg isotope compositions of refractory inclusions, with the goals of constraining the chronology and degree of isotopic heterogeneity in the Solar Nebula.

According to him, “This research is particularly exciting because it has the potential to answer outstanding science questions including, ‘How did the Solar System form and evolve to its current diverse state?’ which is highlighted in the NASA SMD Science Plan for 2007-2016.”

Nathan Williams’ work involves reconstructing the tectonic history of the Moon using Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera data. Although the Moon does not have tectonic plates like Earth, it does have faults and earthquakes (or “moonquakes”) like the ones on our planet. This fellowship will enable him to study the sources and timing of tectonic activity on the Moon. He plans to continue conducting planetary science research through a career in academia.

“Receiving an NESSF fellowship is a national honor and tremendous opportunity to gain experience conducting cutting-edge scientific research,” he says. “It provides further fuel to propel my career and curiosity to explore the solar system and share this exciting research with our country.”

The fellowship program supports continued training of a highly qualified workforce in disciplines required to achieve NASA’s scientific goals. In addition to the ASU students, this year’s recipients hail from such institutions as Stanford University, Brown University, Washington University, California Institute of Technology, and University of California, Los Angeles.

Learn more about the NESSF program here:{1DC0EDEE-32A0-0EAE-ED78-B1F6B624B473}&path=open

Photo: Karen Rieck, one of the four recipients of the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship, is using her funding to place better constraints on the minor element composition of the solar wind through the analysis of collector wafers that flew on NASA’s Genesis spacecraft. Here she stands in front of ASU’s Cameca IMS 6f Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer, which she will be using to analyze samples. Credit: Richard Hervig.

(Nikki Cassis)


Phoenix residents Ed and Helen Korrick know what it means to give back. Their generosity has benefited Arizona State University for 29 years, encompassing such critical investments as a Presidential Professorship endowment that supports renowned ASU faculty member Philip R. Christensen, support for Sun Devil Athletics and the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, as well as their membership in the President’s Club since 2006.

Ed and Helen show their devotion to ASU’s vision for a New American University by advancing the School of Earth and Space Exploration through their professorship, which allows Phil Christensen greater flexibility to pursue his research. When Ed’s 15-year-old grandson was very interested in science several years ago and expressed an interest in meeting Phil, Ed was able to arrange a meeting. What was supposed to be a 15-minute conversation extended into a three-hour discussion of the Mars Program.

“I will never forget how extremely generous he was,” Ed says. “I am so pleased to help him continue his research at ASU and I am glad he is still here.” Professor Christensen is one of the nation’s leading space instrument scientists. The Korricks’ professorship endowment allows him to advance his research and exploration initiatives. Also a Regents’ Professor, Christensen works to expand ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration through the building of instruments intended for use in places like Mars.

Ed’s experience in the retail industry stemmed from his father, Charles Korrick, who immigrated to America from Prussia at the turn of the 20th century to aid his brother, Sam, who immigrated in 1888 and settled in Phoenix in 1895. Sam opened the New York Store, a small dry goods store, in a building now occupied by the Phoenix Symphony offices.

Ed’s family was close with Frank Lloyd Wright, a famous architect and interior designer. Ed says Wright was at times supported by the Korrick family, who would often allow him to purchase goods on credit when he was struggling during the Great Depression.

In 1914, after Sam died and the population of Phoenix continued to grow, Charles, who by that time was the sole owner of the New York Store, built a bigger department store at First and Washington streets and named it Korricks. It was once considered the largest department store in Arizona and even contained its own soda fountain and tea room.

As Ed grew up in Phoenix, he nurtured a love of the symphony, perhaps extending from his own mother’s interests as a member of a group that was instrumental in the founding of the Phoenix Symphony in 1946. As a result, Ed continues to support the Phoenix Symphony today.

“My family moved to Arizona at the turn of the century when it was just a small town; we have watched the community grow,” Ed says. “You can’t live in a community and not participate, so it is appropriate for us to give back. I hope that my family will continue the legacy we’ve started at ASU because it has been an important part of our lives.”


Growing up in a small Arkansas farming town, Amber Straughn couldn’t help but be captivated by the clear, dark night sky, brimming with stars.

As a NASA research astrophysicist, Straughn spends much of her time peering into that same mesmerizing sea of stars – only now with the world’s best telescopes. Straughn is part of the science team for the James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2018 and will enable researchers to learn more than ever before about the universe’s earliest galaxies and how they formed individual stars. Straughn’s first research project in graduate school at ASU studied galaxy mergers, using data from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, a stunning million-second-long
exposure that NASA unveiled in 2004, the deepest portrait of the visible universe ever achieved.

“That was really exciting as a young graduate student, that beautiful image was taken just as I was starting to enter the research phase of my grad-school career,”she says. “Really from a very young age I was captivated by the sky and I was asking questions about what’s up there, why, how does it work.”

Though an astronomer at heart, Straughn chose to study physics because of its versatility. She chose to study at ASU because of the university’s strong reputation in the space sciences; she knew it was a place where physics and astronomy could go hand in hand.

“She’s a fantastic example of a graduate student and researcher,”says Rogier Windhorst, Straughn’s graduate advisor and a Regents’ Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.“She’s very into teaching and outreach as well as research and always willing to do her part. She oozes love for astronomy.”

Straughn started at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt,Md. in 2008 after completing her Ph.D. Her love of teaching serves her well there, as part of her current duties are in public outreach.The work is something she considers vital, not only because it’s important to educate the public about NASA’s discoveries, but also because she wants to show young girls that women have great opportunities at the forefront of scientific research.

Although the launch date for theWebb telescope is nearly six years away, Straughn’s excitement for what the project may discover is palpable.

“I think this is the most exciting project I could be involved in at NASA right now,” Straughn says.“The telescope is basically designed to answer the big questions in astronomy, the questions Hubble can’t answer. And I’m really excited about the surprises that are out there that we haven’t even thought of yet.That’s one of the things that keeps me going in this field.”

By Eric Swedlund, a Tucson-based freelance writer

(Posted with permission from ASU Magazine)


Six ASU students will travel to NASA Johnson Space Center’s Ellington Field in Houston to conduct experiments aboard the “Weightless Wonder” aircraft the week of June 11, 2012.

The Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program (RGEFP) gives undergraduate students the opportunity to propose, build and fly experiments in reduced gravity. The teams will perform the experiments aboard a microgravity aircraft which produces periods of weightlessness for up to 25 seconds at a time by executing a series of approximately 30 roller coaster-like parabolas over the Gulf of Mexico. During the free falls, the students will to gather data in the unique environment that mimics space.

The ASU team’s opportunity to participate is the result of the hard work and commitment of Jacob Higgins, Danielle Hoots, Craig Hoots, Amy Kaczmarowski, Emily McBryan, and Pye Pye Zaw. The team, known as the Dust Devils Microgravity team, was selected based on scientific merit and educational outreach potential from more than 60 proposals. They have put many hours into researching and building their experiment. They are also taking time to reach out to other students and the community to share their unique experiences and discoveries.

The Dust Devils will arrive at Ellington Field, where astronauts do their T-38 training, on June 8. They will then go through physiological training and fly their experiment during the week of June 11. This experiment will test the mechanisms in which dust coagulates in a microgravity environment to provide insight on creation of planets from the proto planetary disk. Following their flight, the team will evaluate findings, draw conclusions and provide the results to NASA.

For more information about the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, visit:

To read the background story about the Dust Devils, visit:

Photo by Tom Story

(Nikki Cassis)


 Newfound galaxy secures spot among top 10 most distant known objects in space

Astronomers at Arizona State University have found an exceptionally distant galaxy, ranked among the top 10 most distant objects currently known in space. Light from the recently detected galaxy left the object about 800 million years after the beginning of the universe, when the universe was in its infancy.

A team of astronomers, led by James Rhoads, Sangeeta Malhotra, and Pascale Hibon of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU, identified the remote galaxy after scanning a moon-sized patch of sky with the IMACS instrument on the Magellan Telescopes at the Carnegie Institution’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

The observational data reveal a faint infant galaxy, located 13 billion light-years away. “This galaxy is being observed at a young age. We are seeing it as it was in the very distant past, when the universe was a mere 800 million years old,” says Rhoads, an associate professor in the school. “This image is like a baby picture of this galaxy, taken when the universe was only 5 percent of its current age. Studying these very early galaxies is important because it helps us understand how galaxies form and grow.”

The galaxy, designated LAEJ095950.99+021219.1, was first spotted in summer 2011. The find is a rare example of a galaxy from that early epoch, and will help astronomers make progress in understanding the process of galaxy formation. The find was enabled by the combination of the Magellan telescopes’ tremendous light gathering capability and exquisite image quality, thanks to the mirrors built in Arizona’s Steward Observatory; and by the unique ability of the IMACS instrument to obtain either images or spectra across a very wide field of view. The research, published in the June 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

This galaxy, like the others that Malhotra, Rhoads, and their team seek, is extremely faint and was detected by the light emitted by ionized hydrogen. The object was first identified as a candidate early-universe galaxy in a paper led by team member and former ASU postdoctoral researcher Hibon. The search employed a unique technique they pioneered that uses special narrow-band filters that allow a small wavelength range of light through.

A special filter fitted to the telescope camera was designed to catch light of narrow wavelength ranges, allowing the astronomers to conduct a very sensitive search in the infrared wavelength range. “We have been using this technique since 1998 and pushing it to ever-greater distances and sensitivities in our search for the first galaxies at the edge of the universe,” says Malhotra, an associate professor in the school. “Young galaxies must be observed at infrared wavelengths and this is not easy to do using ground-based telescopes, since the Earth’s atmosphere itself glows and large detectors are hard to make.”

To be able to detect these very distant objects which were forming near the beginning of the universe, astronomers look for sources which have very high redshifts. Astronomers refer to an object’s distance by a number called its “redshift,” which relates to how much its light has stretched to longer, redder wavelengths due to the expansion of the universe. Objects with larger redshifts are farther away and are seen further back in time. LAEJ095950.99+021219.1 has a redshift of 7. Only a handful of galaxies have confirmed redshifts greater than 7, and none of the others is as faint as LAEJ095950.99+021219.1.

“We have used this search to find hundreds of objects at somewhat smaller distances. We have found several hundred galaxies at redshift 4.5, several at redshift 6.5, and now at redshift 7 we have found one,” explains Rhoads. “We’ve pushed the experiment’s design to a redshift of 7 – it’s the most distant we can do with well-established, mature technology, and it’s about the most distant where people have been finding objects successfully up to now.”

Malhotra adds, “With this search, we’ve not only found one of the furthest galaxies known, but also the faintest confirmed at that distance. Up to now, the redshift 7 galaxies we know about are literally the top one percent of galaxies. What we’re doing here is to start examining some of the fainter ones – thing that may better represent the other 99 percent.”

Resolving the details of objects that are far away is challenging, which is why images of distant young galaxies such as this one appear small, faint, and blurry.

“As time goes by, these small blobs which are forming stars, they’ll dance around each other, merge with each other and form bigger and bigger galaxies. Somewhere halfway through the age of the universe they start looking like the galaxies we see today – and not before. Why, how, when, where that happens is a fairly active area of research,” explains Malhotra.

In addition to Hibon, Malhotra, and Rhoads, the paper’s authors include Michael Cooper of the University of California at Irvine, and Benjamin Weiner of the University of Arizona.


Image: False color image of the galaxy LAEJ095950.99+021219.1 . In this image, blue corresponds to optical light (wavelength near 500 nm), red to near-infrared light (wavelength near 920 nm), and green to the narrow range of wavelengths admitted by the narrow bandpass filter (around 968 nm). LAEJ095950.99+021219.1 appears as the green source near the center of the image cutout. The image shows about 1/6000 of the area that was surveyed. Photo by: James Rhoads

(Nikki Cassis)




NASA-funded research looks to isotope analysis rather than X-ray for measurement

Are your bones getting stronger or weaker? Right now, it’s hard to know. Scientists at Arizona State University and NASA are taking on this medical challenge by developing and applying a technique that originated in the Earth sciences. In a new study, this technique was more sensitive in detecting bone loss than the X-ray method used today, with less risk to patients. Eventually, it may find use in clinical settings, and could pave the way for additional innovative biosignatures to detect disease.

“Osteoporosis, a disease in which bones grow weaker, threatens more than half of Americans over age 50,” explained Ariel Anbar, a professor in ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and senior author of the study.

“Bone loss also occurs in a number of cancers in their advanced stages. By the time these changes can be detected by X-rays, as a loss of bone density, significant damage has already occurred,” Anbar said. “Also, X-rays aren’t risk-free. We think there might be a better way.”

With the new technique, bone loss is detected by carefully analyzing the isotopes of the chemical element calcium that are naturally present in urine. Isotopes are atoms of an element that differ in their masses. Patients do not need to ingest any artificial tracers and are not exposed to any radiation, so there is virtually no risk, the authors noted.

The findings are presented in a paper published in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) the week of May 28. It is titled “Rapidly assessing changes in bone mineral balance using natural stable calcium isotopes.”

“The paper suggests an exciting new approach to the problem,” said Dr. Rafael Fonseca, chair of the Department of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, and a specialist in the bone-destroying disease multiple myeloma. Fonseca was not associated with the study but is partnering with the ASU team on collaborative research based on the findings.

“Right now, pain is usually the first indication that cancer is affecting bones. If we could detect it earlier by an analysis of urine or blood in high-risk patients, it could significantly improve their care,” Fonseca said.

The new technique makes use of a fact well known to Earth scientists, but seldom used in biomedicine: Different isotopes of a chemical element can react at slightly different rates. When bones form, the lighter isotopes of calcium enter bone a little faster than the heavier isotopes. That difference, called “isotope fractionation,” is the key.

“Instead of isotopes of calcium, think about jelly beans,” explained Jennifer Morgan, lead author of the study. “We all have our favorite. Imagine a huge pile of jelly beans with equal amounts of six different kinds. You get to make your own personal pile, picking out the ones you want. Maybe you pick two black ones for every one of another color because you really like licorice. It’s easy to see that your pile will wind up with more black jelly beans than any other color. Therefore, the ratio of black to red or black to green will be higher in your pile than in the big one. That’s similar to what happens with calcium isotopes when bones form. Bone favors lighter calcium isotopes and picks them over the heavier ones.”

Other factors, especially bone destruction, also come into play, making the human body more complicated than the jelly bean analogy. But 15 years ago, corresponding author Joseph Skulan, now an adjunct professor at ASU, combined all the factors into a mathematical model that predicted that calcium isotope ratios in blood and urine should be extremely sensitive to bone mineral balance.

“Bone is continuously being formed and destroyed,” Skulan explained. “In healthy, active humans, these processes are in balance. But if a disease throws the balance off then you ought to see a shift in the calcium isotope ratios.”

The predicted effect on calcium isotopes is very small, but can be measured using sensitive mass spectrometry methods developed by Morgan as part of her doctoral work with Anbar, Skulan and co-author Gwyneth Gordon, an associate research scientist in the W.M. Keck Foundation Laboratory for Environmental Biogeochemistry at ASU. Co-author Stephen Romaniello, currently a doctoral student with Anbar at ASU, contributed an updated mathematical model.

The new study, funded by NASA, examined calcium isotopes in the urine of a dozen healthy subjects confined to bed (“bed rest”) for 30 days at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston’s Institute for Translational Sciences–Clinical Research Center. Whenever a person lies down, the weight-bearing bones of the body, such as those in the spine and leg, are relieved of their burden, a condition known as “skeletal unloading”. With skeletal unloading, bones start to deteriorate due to increased destruction. Extended periods of bed rest induce bone loss similar to that experienced by osteoporosis patients, and astronauts.

“NASA conducts these studies because astronauts in microgravity experience skeletal unloading and suffer bone loss,” said co-author Scott M. Smith, NASA nutritionist. “It’s one of the major problems in human spaceflight, and we need to find better ways to monitor and counteract it. But the methods used to detect the effects of skeletal unloading in astronauts are also relevant to general medicine.”

Lab analysis of the subjects’ urine samples at ASU revealed that the new technique can detect bone loss after as little as one week of bed rest, long before changes in bone density are detectable by the conventional approach, dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA).

Importantly, it is the only method, other than DEXA, that directly measures net bone loss.

“What we really want to know is whether the amount of bone in the body is increasing or decreasing”, said Morgan.

Calcium isotope measurements seem poised to assume an important role in detecting bone disease – in space, and on Earth. The team is working now to evaluate the technique in samples from cancer patients.

“This is a ‘proof-of-concept’ paper,” explained Anbar “We showed that the concept works as expected in healthy people in a well-defined experiment. The next step is to see if it works as expected in patients with bone-altering diseases. That would open the door to clinical applications.”

However, the concept extends even beyond bone and calcium, the authors noted. Many diseases may cause subtle changes in element isotope abundances, or in the concentrations of elements. These sorts of signatures have not been systematically explored in the development of biosignatures of cancers and other diseases.

“The concept of inorganic signatures represents a new and exciting approach to diagnosing, treating and monitoring complex diseases such as cancer,” stated Anna Barker, director of Transformative Healthcare Networks and co-director of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU. Barker, who came to ASU after being deputy director of the National Cancer Institute, emphasized the simplicity of the approach compared to the challenges of deciphering complex genome-derived data, adding “there is an opportunity to create an entirely new generation of diagnostics for cancer and other diseases.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Human Research Program and specifically the Human Health and Countermeasures Element and the Flight Analogs Project supported this work. Bed rest studies were supported in part by the National Center for Research Resources, National Institutes of Health.

(Jenny Green)

Image: This illustration by the Mayo Clinic is an example of abnormal bone density in osteoporosis. Scientists at Arizona State University and NASA are developing a new approach to the medical challenge of detecting bone loss by applying a technique that originated in the Earth sciences. Their findings are presented in a paper published in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) the week of May 28, 2012. Image by permission of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. All rights reserved.


ASU team engineers Moon-mining robot for NASA’s 2012 Lunabotics Competition

Arizona State University was one of more than 50 teams from around the world to test its Moon-mining robot design in the third annual Lunabotics Mining Competition. The event was held at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida May 21-26.

The international competition challenged university teams to design and build a remote controlled or autonomous excavation robot called a lunabot. The teams’ robots went head-to-head to determine which could mine and deposit the most simulated lunar soil within 10 minutes. Teams were judged on their robot’s dimensions and mass, regolith collection, dust mitigation, bandwidth and power usage, and the ability to control the lunabot from a remote control center.

The event drew teams from as far away as Bangladesh and Romania and included competitors from all across the United States. Top honors in the competition went to University of Alabama for earning the most cumulative overall points and Iowa State University for collecting and depositing the most regolith.

“We went into the competition with high hopes, but we were realistic since this was our first year competing,” says Ben Stinnett, leader of the ASU Lunabotics team. “We would have loved to walk away with a prize, but we are happy with the amazing experiences we gained at this event.”

Stinnett was one of four ASU students to travel to Florida for the competition. He was joined by Jim Crowell, Jesse Banks, and Patrick McGarey. All four students are majoring in Earth and Space Exploration with a concentration in Exploration Systems Design. The team roster also includes: David Nelson (Aerospace Engineering), David Darling (Earth and Space Exploration), Michael Anderson (Aerospace Engineering), Jack Lightholder (Aerospace Engineering), Nicholas Lantz (Electrical Engineering), and Pye Pye Zaw (Earth and Space Exploration). Ganesh Kumar, a graduate student, assisted the team, and Professor Srikanth Saripalli served as faculty advisor.

The team’s efforts are the latest in a rapidly growing program in robotics and engineering in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE), which combines science and engineering to produce the next generation of explorers.

“I would not have been able to build this robot without my SESE classes, especially Mark Robinson’s and Paul Scowen’s Exploration Systems Engineering class (SES 405). That completely changed everything we were doing with the design of the robot,” says Crowell. “Without Electronics Instrumentation (SES 330) with Chris Groppi, I wouldn’t have been able to make all the circuits we needed, nor would I have known what a transistor is or what a resistor does.”

The team’s lunabot weighed in at 46.5 kilograms and measured 1.5 meters long (with the arm closed), 0.5 meter wide, and 0.75 meters tall.

In the first round of the competition, the ASU team had complete control of their lunabot, but they were unable to get out of the rut they started in. In round two, the team was unable to establish communication with the lunabot.

"With the limited resources and time that the lunabotics team had, they performed admirably. They gained valuable real-world knowledge that will be useful for the next year's competition," says Saripalli.

“This year was riddled with oversights. We came to the competition with a team of mostly freshmen, with no robotics experience – no one on our team had ever built a robot or competed in a robotics competition – so it was year of growing pains and learning experiences,” says Stinnett.

Next year, the team would like to secure more sponsorship so they are not only able to afford higher-quality materials but so that they can bring more people to Florida.

“Most of our team stayed back in Tempe providing moral support. It’s kind of sad that we’re here with their hard work and they’re not able to be here with us when other teams have 20 or 30 people with them,” says Stinnett.

Budgetary issues were a huge concern for the team. The average budgets for teams in previous years were listed at upwards of $30,000. The ASU team worked within a $5,000 budget.

In lieu of monetary contributions, some local companies in the valley supported the team with donations of materials: Microchip donated microprocessors and development chips; IGUS donated plastic parts to protect wires; and HeatSync Labs in downtown Mesa, a collaborative working environment for scientists and engineers, opened its doors to the students and assisted with questions and problems.

“Being a part of this competition has made me feel much more confident about going into the workforce and has given me an experience that I can expound upon in interviews. You really do need “real” experience, like this competition provided – projects beyond just coursework,” explains Crowell.

ASU’s Lunabotics team is sponsored by its sister organization SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space), the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and the Autonomous System Technologies Research & Integration Laboratory.

     > Images are posted on Kennedy’s Media Gallery at:

     > More images and videos are posted on our SESE Facebook Fan page:

     > For information about the competition, visit:

Image: Pictured from left to right are: Jesse Banks, Ben Stinnett, Patrick McGarey and Jim Crowell.

(Nikki Cassis)



The LROC team uploaded some great photos of Earth during the solar eclipse. Check them out here: In this photo, LRO turned to image the Earth four times during the solar eclipse on 20-21 May 2012; in this view the Moon's shadow is seen passing over the Aleutian Islands. Annotated NAC Image E192199689L [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].