News and Updates


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)


For the past decade or so, graduate students in astronomy at Arizona State University have sponsored monthly open houses, with programs and open telescopes.

Now the newly formed ASU Astronomy Club will add to the celestial mix with a free bi-monthly lecture series, beginning Jan. 27.

The lecture, at 7 p.m., will be followed by the free open house from 8 to 10 p.m. The lecture will take place in Bateman Physical Sciences Center F-174 on ASU’s Tempe campus, while the open house will be on the roof of Bateman H Wing.

Lecturing will be Paul Scowen, an associate research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Scowen will speak on "Star and Planet Formation Near Massive Stars: What Nebulae Can Tell Us About the Origin of the Solar System."

Scowen said, “For decades we have admired nebulae as interstellar signposts indicating where the most massive of stars had recently formed. However, such environments also represent an important part of the process of star and planet formation as the winds and radiation from those massive stars cause new stars to form nearby, but at the same time try to destroy them before they are done forming.

“This picture represents a snapshot of the early history of our Solar System as meteoritic evidence indicates our own Sun formed in such an environment. In this talk we will explore these environments with images from the Hubble Space Telescope and learn about how hard it is to make stars and planetary systems, and have them survive to tell the story.”

The forthcoming lectures, on general astronomy topics presented in a 30-45 minute colloquium format, will be aimed toward the public. Presenters will include club members, graduate students, and sometimes faculty.

“This series will be an excellent opportunity for the public to learn about cosmology, galactic evolution and environments, the birth and death of stars, extrasolar and planetary systems, black holes, telescopes and astronomy in general,” said club member and astrophysics graduate student Mark Richardson.

“By having these in the evening, we will give families the opportunity to attend together, hear an exciting presentation by an enthusiastic astronomer, and then be able to go upstairs to look through telescopes, see meteorites, enjoy a tour at the planetarium, etc.

“This will also be a great opportunity for grad students and club members to get some experience giving public lectures, and interacting with the public.”

The schedule for spring is as follows:

• Feb 10, lecture at 7 p.m.

• Feb 24, lecture at 7 p.m., open house at 8 p.m.

• March 9, lecture at 7 p.m.

• March 30, lecture at 7 p.m., open house at 8 p.m.

• April 13, lecture at 7 p.m.

• April 27, lecture at 7 p.m., open house at 8 p.m.

The Astronomy Open Houses are held from 8 to 10 p.m. on the roof of Bateman Physical Sciences Center H-Wing.

To get to the open house, go to the main entrance to the Bateman H-wing. Free parking is available after 7 p.m. in the Tyler Street Parking Garage. From the parking garage go west along the University Drive sidewalk (toward campus) until you see signs leading you to the entrance.

For a campus map and parking information, go to, or contact Ashcraft at

For information on the lecture series, go to

(Judith Smith)


Today, the NASA Johnson Space Center and the School of Earth and Space Exploration unveiled the Project Gemini Online Digital Archive. The archive contains the first high-resolution digital scans of the original Gemini flight films, now available in several formats.

Project Gemini (1964-1966) was the second United States human spaceflight program, after Project Mercury (1960-1963). The overarching goal was to test systems and operations critical to the Apollo program (1961-1975), conceived with the purpose of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth". The LROC Featured Image discusses Gemini's specific goals and "firsts" from the mission.

In May of 2011, a team of scientists led by professor Mark Robinson commemorated Project Mercury with digital image archive. You can read the details of the process here. Also visit the ASU Project Mercury digital scan archive, and the Apollo archive.

Image: Ed White, the first American to walk in space, photographed by Jim McDivitt during the Gemini IV mission [NASA/JSC/Arizona State University].


NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity will spend the next few months during the coldest part of Martian winter at Greeley Haven, an outcrop of rock on Mars recently named informally to honor Ronald Greeley, Arizona State University Regents' professor of planetary geology, who died October 27, 2011.

Long passionate about exploring the solar system and Mars in particular, Greeley was involved with many missions to the Red Planet, including Mariners 6, 7, and 9, Viking, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, and the two Mars Exploration Rovers. He was also a co-investigator for the camera system on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter mission. Among his major research interests were wind erosion, dunes, and dust devil activity, all of which can be found in abundance on Mars.

"We miss Ron's wisdom and guidance on the rover team," says Jim Bell, lead scientist for the Panoramic Camera (Pancam) on the rover. Bell, who came to ASU in early 2011, is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

"We hope that eventually the International Astronomical Union will name a crater or some other feature on Mars or some other solar system body for Ron," Bell says. "But that process typically takes years."

In the meantime, he adds, "This small commemoration helps preserve the memory of Ron's contributions to planetary science within the community and beyond."

Dusty rover

Opportunity, which landed on Mars eight years ago January 24, has driven a total of 21 miles (34 kilometers). In August, Opportunity arrived at the rim of Endeavour Crater, an ancient impact scar 14 miles (22 km) wide. Eroded sections of the crater's rim poke above the flat-lying sediments that Opportunity has driven on since it landed.

Located just south of Mars' equator, the rover has worked through four Martian southern hemisphere winters. Being closer to the equator than its twin rover, Spirit, Opportunity has not needed to stay on a Sun-facing slope during previous winters. Now, however, its solar panels carry a thicker coating of dust than before.

The dust makes it necessary for Opportunity to spend the winter at a Sun-facing site where the rover can tilt its power panels northward about 15° for maximum solar exposure. Greeley Haven provides just the right tilt.

In addition, while Opportunity remains on the slope over winter, it still has some mobility and can investigate Greeley Haven's multiple targets of scientific interest using with the tools on the rover's robotic arm.

Windows into the past

Although they are much eroded, the uplifted segments of Endeavour's rim contain rocks that date back much farther into Martian history than any Opportunity has yet examined.

"Endeavour Crater has given us a whole new mission," remarked Steven Squyres, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Rover project, describing the prospects for science after Opportunity reached the rim.

Plans for research over the winter at Greeley Haven include a radio-science investigation of the interior of Mars, inspections of mineral compositions and textures on the outcrop, and recording a full-circle, color panorama.

"Greeley Haven provides the proper tilt, as well as a rich variety of potential targets for imaging and compositional and mineralogic studies," says Bell. "We've already found hints of gypsum in the bedrock in this formation, and we know from orbital data that there are clays nearby, too."

Greeley Haven, he says, "looks to be a safe and special place that could yield exciting new discoveries about the watery past of Mars."


Photographed in false color to emphasize differences in composition, the rocks of Greeley Haven stand out in blue-gray tints. In the background at right lies a tan patch of sand. While Opportunity is parked here for several months, scientists plan to investigate interesting targets on the outcrop using the instruments on the rover's arm. Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell


(Robert Burnham)


NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), overseen by ASU professor Mark Robinson, has been busy taking high resolution photos of the Moon's surface. Most recently, LROC captured stunning photos of the Moon's enormous Aristarchus crater. Wired Science reporter and freelance journalist Adam Mann posted a story on Wired's website today about this crater, which is two times as deep as the Grand Canyon.

This spectacular image was LROC's Image of the Day on December 25, 2011. Read more about this image


Photo: West wall of Aristarchus crater seen obliquely by the LROC NACs from an altitude of only 26 km. Scene is about 12 km wide at the base, NAC M175569775 [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].


Channel 12 interviewed ASU professors on the topic of 2012: End of the world?

Michael Smith from ASU Archaeology and Ariel Anbar, SESE abd Chemistry and Biochemistry, debunk myths about Dec. 21, 2012 and discuss when the world could end.

View the video