News and Updates


Late professor Ronald Greeley, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University until his death in 2011, is the 2013 recipient of the Harold Masursky Award for outstanding service to planetary science and exploration. The prize is named after the distinguished geologist and astronomer Harold Masursky (1922-1990), who investigated planetary and lunar surfaces, with a primary interest in finding scientifically valuable landing places.

The Masursky Award was established by the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society to recognize and honor individuals who have rendered outstanding service to planetary science and exploration through engineering, managerial, programmatic, or public service activities. Greeley is the twentieth recipient of the Masursky Award and the first from Arizona State University.

Greeley was involved in nearly every major space probe mission flown in the solar system since the Apollo missions to the Moon, including the Galileo mission to Jupiter, Magellan mission to Venus, Voyager 2 mission to Uranus and Neptune, and shuttle imaging radar studies of Earth. Passionate about Mars exploration, He was involved with several missions to the Red Planet, including Mariners 6, 7, and 9, Viking, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, and the Mars Exploration Rovers. He was a co-investigator for the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Mars Express mission.

Greeley was a Regents Professor of Planetary Geology at Arizona State University in the School of Earth and Space Exploration until his death on Oct. 27, 2011. He received his Ph.D. in geology in 1966 from the University of Missouri at Rolla. Through service in the U.S. Army, he was assigned to NASA’s Ames Research Center in 1967, where he trained astronauts and helped prepare for the Apollo missions to the Moon. After his military service ended, he remained at NASA Ames to conduct research in planetary geology. Greeley joined the faculty at Arizona State University in 1977 with a joint professorship in the Department of Geology and the Center for Meteorite Studies.

The Harold Masursky Award will be accepted by Greeley’s widow, Cynthia Greeley, at the 45th annual DPS meeting in Denver, Colo., Oct. 6-11, 2013.

More information about DPS prizes:

More information about the DPS annual meeting:


(Nikki Cassis)



It has taken centuries for scientists to settle on a creation story for our moon, the most popular of which is depicted on the July cover of National Geographic magazine. But the debate is still far from finished. Professor Erik Asphaug is the the scientist "behind the cover" for the cover story "The Moon's Mystery: Scientists Debate How it Formed." He explained that scientists generally agree that something smashed into Earth to give birth to the moon—but new evidence has cast doubt on details of the giant impact model. Asphaug has proposed that Earth briefly had a second moonlet, which plastered itself onto the far side of its larger companion. You can read the full story here

In a separate article, published July 9 by the Huffington Post, Asphaug also discusses the moon's origin. 

"All planets except the Earth, that have a moon, have more than one. "So it is unusual that we have only 'the Moon,' so this itself is an oddity that would need to be explained." You read the story and watch the video here


Evrim Resources Corp. (EVM.V), a mineral exploration company with a diverse portfolio of quality gold and copper projects, and a geological database covering Mexico and portions of southwestern United States, has appointed SESE graduate Jeff Geier as Senior Geologist.

Geier holds honors B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees from Arizona State University, specializing in field-based analysis of geology, structure, and geochemistry. The majority of his experience, focused in Mexico, the United States, and southern Europe, has been concentrated on the exploration for porphyry copper and mesothermal gold deposits. His activities range from greenfield and reconnaissance exploration to project management. Geier will be generating projects in Mexico and elsewhere as well as providing oversight to Evrim''s exploration projects.

Read more here


Francis (Frank) Timmes, a professor in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, has been named vice provost of educational technology, a new position designed to help meet the growing use of educational technology at ASU. In this position, Timmes will be encouraging and enabling faculty to use the best-suited technology for their courses.

“Professor Timmes has a unique combination of demonstrated excellence in digital teaching and a deep understanding of advanced computing,” said Elizabeth D. Phillips, ASU executive vice president and provost. “He is the perfect person to help realize the university’s vision of leadership in academic excellence and accessibility by innovative use of educational technology to improve teaching and learning.”

Timmes’ experience includes teaching the largest online science lecture and laboratory courses at ASU. He also serves on the Provost’s Committee on Excellence in Digital Teaching, the Informational Technology Leadership Council and is director of the ASU Advanced Computing Center. In this new role, Timmes will work closely with faculty and instructional technologists across the university and will lead the UTO Academic Technologies group’s efforts to build additional capacity to support faculty use of technology.

“I am thrilled to be working in this new position at ASU to help the university excel in digital teaching,” Timmes said. “The rapid evolution of educational technologies such as streaming video, social networking and interactive gaming are a few examples that can aid students and instructors in offering a more collaborative, active-learning online experience.”

Timmes added that currently there is a vast array of educational technologies being evaluated or used by different academic units, so one need is providing an aggregation point where faculty and staff can experiment with the technologies and learn from other faculty and staff what works best for a given course. Another goal is providing the tools needed for instructors to offer students an active-learning online environment.

Timmes said he will draw from his experiences in his own online teaching methodologies, from hybrid courses to streaming video courses, to green room recorded courses and addressing online academic integrity. In addition, Timmes said his experience with scientific computing technology – including hardware, software and community support – provides useful, related background knowledge.

Timmes came to ASU in 2008 as a professor and associate director of graduate studies in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. His research is in astrophysics with a focus on supernovae, cosmic chemical evolution and their impacts on astrobiology. He is a scientific editor of The Astrophysical Journal.

Timmes received his doctorate and master's in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of California Santa Cruz and his bachelor's in physics from the University of California Santa Barbara.



NASA and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) have announced that two Arizona State University research teams have been awarded NASA grants totaling $700,000 to support astronaut crew health and performance in space exploration missions. Of the 100 proposals received, NASA and NSBRI selected 23 proposals representing 18 institutions. ASU was one of only three institutions to have more than one proposal selected, a testament to ASU’s leadership position at the forefront of spaceflight research and space exploration.

Ariel Anbar, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, was awarded a three-year grant totaling $600,000 to detect bone loss of astronauts in microgravity, a major challenge for humans engaged in long-term space travel.

Anbar investigates bone loss by applying a technique that originated in the Earth sciences. Over the past six years he and his team have developed a method for rapidly detecting changes in short-term net bone mineral balance (BMB) based on measurement of the natural calcium isotope composition of urine and blood.

Anbar and his team, which includes associate research scientist Gwyneth Gordon and adjunct professor Joseph Skulan, both in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, have validated this method in bed rest studies. This successor grant will allow for the testing of the calcium isotope technique in spaceflight, by monitoring changes in the urine of crew members aboard the International Space Station. Separately, they are pursuing applications of the technique to the detection and treatment of bone diseases on Earth.

“Bone loss is a serious problem faced by astronauts on long-duration space missions,” said Anbar. “Our calcium isotope assay allows rapid, quantitative measures of the changes in BMB that lead to bone loss, providing key information that other techniques cannot provide.”

The second ASU recipient was Jennifer Barrila, an assistant research scientist at the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, the Biodesign Institute at ASU. Barrila studies microbial pathogens and is working to provide novel insights into infectious disease risks for astronauts during spaceflight missions. As a senior member of Professor Cheryl Nickerson’s research team, Barrila was awarded $100,000 for a year long study to advance the previous findings made by their team that showed that spaceflight uniquely increased the disease-causing potential of the food-borne pathogen Salmonella Typhimurium.

The goal of Barrila’s study is to use the nematode C. elegans as a host model system to evaluate the effects of microgravity analogue culture on the virulence (disease causing potential) of both pathogenic and commensal microorganisms in order to mitigate infectious disease risks to NASA crews. Astronauts are particularly vulnerable to infection due to reduced immune function during spaceflight missions. The newly funded study led by ASU is a multidisciplinary collaborative effort between her team (which includes Nickerson), Sarah Castro and Mark Ott at the NASA Johnson Space Center and John Alverdy from the University of Chicago School of Medicine.

“ASU is one of the leading NASA-funded universities in the country and our team is honored that NASA continues to recognize and fund our team’s research contributions in support of crew health and mission success, which are critical for the future of human spaceflight,” said Barrila. “In addition to enhancing our understanding of microbial risk to the crew during spaceflight, it is also exciting that this work holds the potential to enhance our general understanding of the host-pathogen interaction and may hold health benefits for the general public.”

“The public’s interest in sending humans on long missions in space has never been higher,” says Anbar. “Not only NASA, but many private entrepreneurs are aiming to send people to Mars and other deep space destinations. Keeping people healthy on such voyages is going to be a huge challenge. Scientists at ASU are at the forefront in tackling these challenges.”

For a list of recipients, visit:

(Nikki Cassis)

You can read the story published by the Phoenix Business Journal here:


Congratulations to Ben Stinnett, SESE undergraduate in Exploration Systems Design and Barrett Honors College member, for being one of the inaugural US Airways Scholarship winners.

The US Airways Scholarship consists of a $1,500 monetary award and was created through the generosity US Airways in order to support outstanding undergraduate students who are seeking degrees in areas that are related to the diverse needs of the airline industry. There are only five US Airways Scholars in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with others in W.P. Carey and Fulton Schools of Engineering. As a US Airways Scholar, students will attend a tour of US Airways Headquarters to learn about the company and meet with executives.

The other recipients are:

Andrew Taylor, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication
Alicia Olivas, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences
Kamra Hakim, School of Politics and Global Studies
Jonathan Londono, School of Transborder Studies



For the second year in a row, Arizona State University tested its Moon-mining robot design at the NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition. The event was held at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida May 20-24.

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.

Over 50 teams from around the world showed up for the weeklong competition. Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, India, Mexico, Poland, and the US were all represented at the competition. Iowa State won the overall grand prize, the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence, for earning the most cumulative overall points. The ASU team placed 14th overall, collecting and depositing 15.7 kilograms of regolith on its second run.

“ASU Lunabotics spent the last year designing and building a completely new system,” says Ben Stinnett, leader of the ASU Lunabotics team and a ASU/NASA Space Grant intern. “Similar to a Caterpillar frontloader, this robot has a front scooping bucket that is actuated to collect the regolith.”

Stinnett was one of five ASU students to travel to Florida for the competition. He was joined by David Nelson, Aman Sharma, Jasper Jiang and Zhiqian Li. Stinnett is majoring in Earth and Space Exploration with a concentration in Exploration Systems Design. Nelson and Sharma both major in Aerospace Engineering, while Jiang’s major is Electrical Engineering and Li’s is Computer Science. The team roster also includes: Mason Denny (Earth and Space Exploration) and Jesse Banks (Earth and Space Exploration). Professor Srikanth Saripalli served as faculty advisor and he is also a ASU/NASA Space Grant mentor.

The team’s lunabot weighed in at 47.2 kilograms and measured 1.48 meters long, 0.5 meter wide, and 0.6 meters tall.

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.

The overlying challenge this year was communication. Many teams suffered from packet loss and dropped communications. The ASU team had this issue intermittently during its second competition run, causing them to lose a lot of time and only be able to make one run.

“Our first attempt was just human error. We didn’t properly secure the power wire for our router and ended up getting in caught up in our wheel. This pulled our router off the robot and we ran over it,” said Stinnett. “Overall it was a huge improvement from last year. We were one of a small number of teams who were actually able to collect something. We have a solid platform that we will continue to improve over the next year in preparation for the next competition.”

ASU’s Lunabotics team is sponsored by the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and the Autonomous System Technologies Research & Integration Laboratory.

For information about the competition, visit:

(Nikki Cassis)



Researchers explain maximum size in mammals

Mammals vary enormously in how big they are, ranging from weighing less than a penny to measuring more than three school busses in length. Some groups of mammals have become very large, such as elephants and whales, while others have always stayed small, like primates. A new theory developed by an interdisciplinary team led by Jordan Okie of Arizona State University provides an explanation for why and how certain groups of organisms are able to evolve gigantic sizes whereas others are not.

The international research team comprised of palaeontologists, evolutionary biologists, and ecologists examined information on how quickly an individual animal grows and used it to predict how large it may get over evolutionary time. Their research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The new theory is developed from the observation that some animals live fast and die young, while others take their time and mature much later. This is called the slow-fast life-history continuum, where ‘fast’ animals such as mice breed very quickly, while humans mature slowly and are relatively older when they first have children. The theory proposes that those species that are relatively faster are more likely to evolve a large size quicker than slow species, and that their maximum size will be greater.

The research team tested their theory using the fossil record of mammals over the last 70 million years, examining the maximum size of each mammal group throughout this time, including whales, elephants, rodents, seals and primates. They found that their theory was very well supported.

“Primates have evolved very slowly, and never got bigger than 1000 pounds,” said Okie, an exploration postdoctoral fellow in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU. “The opposite was true of whales, which evolved their large size at the fastest rates recorded.”

The theory also makes predictions about the relative risks of extinction for large animals compared to small. The maximum size of an animal is limited by the rate of mortality in the population. Because larger animals tend to breed less frequently than smaller animals, if the mortality rate doubles, the maximum size is predicted to be 16 times smaller.

“This is a really surprising finding,” said co-author Evans of Monash University (Melbourne, Australia). “It points to another reason why many of the large animals went extinct after the last Ice Age, and their high risk of extinction in modern environments.”

The research clarifies some of the differences among the main groups of mammals and makes further predictions about how changes in body size affect the evolutionary potential. In the future, this work will be extended to help explain how extinction risk may be reduced in changing climates.

The team was funded by a Research Coordination Grant from the US National Science Foundation and financial support to Okie was provided by an Exploration Postdoctoral Fellowship from Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and a National Aeronautics and Space Administration Astrobiology Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Photo: The southern elephant seal, Mirounga leonina, is the largest species of the mammalian order Pinnipedia, which is the second largest order of mammals. The males weigh up to 4,000 kilograms. Credit: Dan Costa.


SESE professor Jim Bell joined the News Hub on the Wall Street Journal to discuss the future of space exploration including colonizing Mars, and whether mining asteroids will yield the gold rush of the 21st century.

Watch the interview here


With billions of galaxies in the known universe, each containing billions of stars, what do you think the odds are that other life forms exist somewhere out there? Probably pretty good. But where do you begin this cosmic search? It could be a class called Habitable Worlds, which is offered fully online at Arizona State University, and which has already been taken by more than 1,000 students.

Habitable Worlds is not just a class that addresses the age-old question: “Is there anyone out there?” It also teaches students how to think like scientists and uses the power of the Internet and the intuition of a tech savvy generation to kindle their interest and spur their education.

“Most science classes teach science as facts and answers,” says Ariel Anbar, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and one of the driving forces behind Habitable Worlds. “We are trying to show students that science is really a process – a process that first helps us organize our ignorance about questions to which we don’t have answers, and then helps us narrow the uncertainties so that we gradually replace ignorance with understanding.”

Anbar, recently named a President’s Professor, believes this course is a natural online offering, so long as it uses the delivery medium to its advantage. That means engaging the students and enticing them through interactive exercises.

Anbar has been a leader in online learning at ASU and nationally, and is deeply involved in using the medium to its fullest to help educate and encourage a generation that has grown up with the Internet. Part of his becoming a President’s Professor is in recognition of his pioneering online teaching efforts.

Habitable Worlds – developed through ASU Online – is organized around a game-like activity using a goal-oriented format, integrating several traditional areas of science that are usually taught separately - like astronomy, planetary sciences and geology.

“We want students to go through the same processes we go through as scientists,” says Anbar of the course. “The best way to learn science is to do science.”

Anbar and Lev Horodyskyj, a course coordinator in SESE and co-developer of the course, have made HabWorlds into a bit of a treasure hunt, writ large.

At the beginning of the term, they assign a star field to each student and in that field they search for a habitable world. To carry out the search in this “habitable hunt,” students need to know what they are looking for. They need to understand the various classes of stars, some of the observed traits of each, to figure out which ones could nurture life, and how physics, chemistry and geology come together to determine whether a planet can harbor life. The quest motivates them to learn these concepts.

For example, in a lesson on the stability of liquid water, a key ingredient for any alien “Earth-like” planet, students use a simulator to explore the stable phase of water under pressure and temperature conditions found on Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon and Mars. The data students collect are plotted in real time, giving them enough information to plot boundaries between the three phases of water, if they conduct a comprehensive experiment (they are gently prodded through the experiment if it falls short). Essentially, students build a phase diagram of water (a basic concept taught in introductory chemistry) from observed data, rather than having it handed to them and told, “That's the way it is,” Horodyskyj says.

Once students discover a scientific concept through this kind of basic experimentation, the lecture component kicks in, reviewing what they discovered and why these relationships exist. The lesson is reinforced through an application activity where students use the concepts they have discovered to make predictions about environments and conditions they have not previously explored. These concepts are directly applicable to the habitable hunt, where students are expected to identify that this concept is important to completing their mission and apply it without being instructed on when or where to use it.

“We strive to show students that science is an iterative process, where we use data to build models, then use those models to make predictions about what data we will find next, and use that new data to further refine our models,” Horodyskyj says. “This is the essence of understanding our universe and there's no better way to teach it than to have students engage in that process throughout the term.”

“They basically are going through the same steps that you would want students to go through in an in-person laboratory class,” Anbar says of the online activities. “They observe, develop a hypothesis, test the hypothesis and log data. Along the way, students learn some of today’s basic science concepts and techniques, like spectroscopy, the Planck function, thermal emission and how stars work. It is serious, college-level science. But they don't just listen to a lecture. They engage, hypothesize, test and evaluate. We want them to gain a deeper understanding of how science works, teaching them to think critically along the way.”

The course makes use of immersive, media-rich simulations that let students explore perspectives and locations that would otherwise be inaccessible. For example, one simulation lets students create stars of different masses so that they can discover the properties of different types of stars. Another, a “virtual field trip,” takes them to South Australia where they can explore in detail, fossils of the earliest animals on Earth. The virtual field trips were produced as part of a project with the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). Anbar directs the NAI team at ASU.

“The simulations take advantage of the digital medium to deliver experiences that can't be done nearly as well in a lecture hall,” explains Anbar.

The simulations, lectures and assignments are pulled together using an internet-based learning platform developed by an Australian startup company, Smart Sparrow.

“The learning platform is the secret sauce,” says Anbar. “It isn't as flashy as the simulations, but it’s what lets us build rich, game-like lessons that make use of those simulations and adapt to what the students do. It’s a bit like the way that PowerPoint enables us to make beautiful and informative slide shows. Without that software, all we’d have are a bunch of links to cool simulations. With the software, we can build an interactive and adaptive learning experience.”

It's not all fun and games, though. Because it is a course that counts for quantitative science credit, students are required to do a fair amount of math.

“What we try to do is get the students to see that the equations they are working with actually describe what they see in many of the simulations,” Anbar says. “The equations describe phenomena that are interesting and powerful in answering questions that the students need to answer. They use the math in the equations to solve challenges they encounter in the habitable hunt.”

“The goal is to get them to see the way scientists see the value of quantitative thinking, the value of math,” he adds. “We want to show that math can be used for something other than to solve a problem in a homework assignment. Math can be used to help answer a question they care about, like are we alone?”

Anbar and professor Steve Semken of the School of Earth and Space Exploration recently received funding from the National Science Foundation to run an assessment of HabWorlds to see if the class is successful. Over the next three years, Anbar, Semken and Horodyskyj will be testing students who have completed the course to see if they exhibit scientific reasoning skills. They also will test the technology used in the online course and compare that experience with in-person learning.

With the class being virtual, Anbar has taken time to step back and see if he is being as effective as he can be in teaching HabWorlds. While it still may be early, he has gotten a fair amount of positive feedback from students. Contrary to what many expect, Anbar finds that teaching a class of 400 online students can be more personal than teaching 400 students in a lecture hall. Part of that advantage is student acceptance of the teaching medium.

For example, students are less intimidated by the instructor and more freely communicate online. While uninhibited Internet posts can cause problems, Anbar says that they ultimately give him more insight into how and why students are struggling, and give rise to opportunities to make personal connections with individual students.

“I’ve had more interaction with students in my large online classes than in large face-to-face classes. Working online lets you get to know some of the students in the context of their lives,” Anbar says. “With the limited contact time of lectures, all I may really know is I have this student who is struggling. Half the time those students don’t even show up.”

“With online courses, and with students who are comfortable interacting online, they tend to let you know what they think,” Anbar says. “Sometimes they express it inappropriately, but when my TAs and I show them that we’re listening, and that we care, we are able to reach students who otherwise would just be I.D. numbers on a spreadsheet. Some of these interactions have been really powerful and moving.”

Another benefit is that motivated students step up to help others.

“In any large class, there are usually a few students who easily grasp the material and are willing to help others,” explains Anbar. “Usually, they can only help a few of their friends. But in an online class they are like bonus teaching assistants. They are sometimes even better than the teaching assistants because they can easily put themselves in the shoes of their peers and offer really effective advice.”

Anbar says there is great potential with the online medium in higher education that he’s only begun to tap. Online classes could be designed with intelligent, adaptive tutoring to guide students through difficult content, he explains. They could incorporate deeper social networking to encourage rich, spontaneous interactions with peers and teaching staff, potentially turning large scale from a liability to an advantage.

When thinking about the tools at his disposal and the number of students enrolling in HabWorlds, Anbar is excited about his future as a teacher.

“I’m doing online what I could never do face-to-face,” he says.

(Skip Derra)

Photo: ASU President's Professor Ariel Anbar has developed an online course that makes students habitable world hunters. Credit: Tom Story