News and Updates


A star’s internal chemistry can doom a planet’s life long before the star itself dies

The search for potentially habitable planets involves discussion of what is sometimes referred to as the Goldilocks Zone, the relatively thin band in a solar system in which conditions on a planet can support life. Astrobiologists and planetary scientists agree that a planet’s distance from its parent star is of paramount importance for creating those optimum conditions – like Goldilocks’s porridge, it has to be just right. A new study by Arizona State University researchers suggests that the host star’s chemical makeup can also impact conditions of habitability of planets that orbit them.
The team’s paper, published in the August issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, demonstrates that subtle differences in a star’s internal chemistry can have huge effects on a planet’s chances of long-term habitability.
“We have identified changes in the ratios of different elements as particularly important for a given solar system’s habitability,” says Patrick Young, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and lead author on the paper. “The more abundant elements carbon, oxygen, silicon, magnesium, and sodium are particularly important. The greater the abundances of these four elements in a star, the slower it, and the location of its Goldilocks Zone, will evolve.”
As a star evolves, it becomes brighter, causing the habitable zone to move outwards through its solar system. The team’s study indicates that a greater abundance of oxygen, carbon, sodium, magnesium, and silicon should be a plus for an inner solar system’s long-term habitability because the abundance of these elements make the star cooler and cause it to evolve more slowly, thereby giving planets in its habitable zone more time to develop life as we know it.
To explore whether stellar internal chemistry causes significant changes in the evolution of stars and therefore their habitable zones, Young and his colleagues, graduate students Mike Pagano and Kelley Liebst, did simulations of stars that are like our sun.
“We used spectra from 145 broadly sun-like stars targeted by planet to estimate the amount of variation in the abundance ratios of elements. For each model we varied the amount of one element to the extremes of variation we estimated from our analysis of the observations,” explains Pagano, who is a graduate student in the School of Earth and Space Exploration astrophysics program. 
The largest changes, unsurprisingly, arise from variation in oxygen.
“Oxygen is the most abundant element in the universe besides hydrogen and helium, so a change in the oxygen abundance results in a significant change in the total amount of heavy elements in the star. Oxygen turns out to be highly variable in abundance.  The effect of increased heavy element abundance on a star is to make it harder for the energy produced by nuclear fusion to escape the star. This means less energy needs to be produced to support the star, and it can live longer.”
The stellar abundance of oxygen seems crucial in determining how long planets stay in the habitable zone around their host star. If there had been less oxygen in the Sun’s chemical makeup, for example, Earth likely would have been pushed out of the Sun’s habitable zone about a billion years ago, well before complex organisms evolved. Considering the first complex multicellular organisms only arose about 650 million years ago, such a move would have likely destroyed any chance of complex life taking hold on Earth. Planets we are searching for signs of life may be about to leave their habitable zones or only have just entered them.
“Habitability is very difficult to quantify because it depends on a huge number of variables, some of which we have yet to identify,” says Young. “It also depends on the definition of habitable that we choose to use. We chose to use a relatively simple model that predicts whether a planet can sustain liquid water on its surface with reasonable assumptions about planetary atmospheres.”  

(Nikki Cassis)


Arizona State University is unstoppable. We believe if you empower students and faculty with entrepreneurial thinking and encourage them to explore at the edge of learning, great things will happen. SESE Professor Ed Stump is featured in the new The Unstoppable commercial, which got its first airing during the Pac 12 Network's coverage of the August 30th Sun Devils football game with NAU.

The associated webpage is now live at with bios and a separate video with each of the people in the commercial.


The Arizona Daily Star's Centennial salute to science in Arizona runs all summer. Each day, for 100 days, they'll record a milestone in the state's scientific history. On Sept. 2, Paul Scowen was highlighted. Scowen works on the development of next-generation detectors and instrumentation to enable new insights into Star and Planet Formation both in our own Galaxy and in nearby galaxies. He works as the PI on several space mission designs and concept studies and was a member of the Wide Field Camera 3 Science Oversight Committee that created this image.

Read the full story here


The Arizona Daily Star's Centennial salute to science in Arizona runs all summer. Each day, for 100 days, they'll record a milestone in the state's scientific history. On August 26, Rogier Windhorst was highlighted for his years of work with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Photo credit: Tom Story

Read the full story here


While the Mars rover Curiosity explores the red planet, those of us here on Earth can see a replica of the vehicle made by Jim Arbaugh at the Science Discovery Center in Santa Anna, and later this week in Arizona State University’s new research building, Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV.

Arbaugh has spent much of the last year working on the two replicas, the one on exhibit in Orange County and the other, more sophisticated model to be transported to ASU.

Curiosity weighs nearly 2,000 pounds including 180 pounds of scientific instruments. It is 9 feet, 6 inches long, nearly 9 feet wide and a little over 7 feet tall. Arbaugh's version matches the dimensions of the real thing except it weigh 450 pounds. It fills the space of one car in his two-car garage.

Kip Hodges, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, said Arbaugh was recommended to him by the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. Hodges has seen pictures of Arbaugh's work on the rover. “It's truly spectacular,” said Hodges. “I think this is worth every penny.”
On Aug. 31, Arbaugh will disassemble his 450-pound project, load it on a truck and drive it to Tempe, Ariz. The rover will be installed over the Labor Day weekend.

Before he started work on the first model, he had to be given a security clearance. Then JPL handed over plans to him. The first model on display in Orange County took three months to build. The model he's done for Arizona State is “a complete replica down to the instrumentation,” he said. “The one I did for the Discovery Science Center represented a mock up. This is representative of the actual vehicle on Mars with as much information as I could gather.”


Arizona State University is kicking off a pilot program aimed at improving access to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes for students who are blind or visually impaired.

Called 3D-IMAGINE (Image Arrays to Graphically Implement New Education), the program will use three-dimensional materials to enhance independent learning. Researchers are seeking as many program participants as possible from both ASU and the wider community.

Beginning biology (100) and astronomy (113) lab classes each will have one section using new, 3-D tactile boards designed specifically for students who are blind or visually impaired. However, sighted students may use the materials as well.

“Textbook images typically contain important messages, whether it’s intensity or altitude, or cell structure,” said Rogier Windhorst, Regents’ and Foundation Professor in ASU’s School of Earth & Space Exploration. “We think these messages can be conveyed in a 3-D tactile just fine. While a person who is blind would have to sense the information, we believe 3-D images may open up a new world in STEM courses for students who are visually impaired.”

To test their theory, an ASU interdisciplinary research team developed a series of 3-D tactile boards that represent key textbook images. Students need to understand these images in order to successfully complete each science class. Made of high-density plastic, the boards will initially cost about $60 each, and be used in place of or in addition to traditional lab materials.

The goal is to provide an opportunity for students who are blind or visually impaired, to learn the material independently.

College level STEM courses are typically rigorous, but for blind or visually impaired students, these classes often present even greater challenges. Imagine taking an astronomy class and having to depend on someone else to accurately and effectively describe a photo of a nebula, or in biology, detail the image of a cell.

The idea to turn digital images into 3-D tactile representations originated in Debra Baluch’s upper-level Cell Biotechnology class. Baluch, a research scientist in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, taught junior Ashleigh Gonzales last spring. Gonzales is pursing a degree in molecular biosciences and biotechnology, and is visually impaired.

“She is just as capable as anyone else in the class of doing this level of science, but unfortunately, she faces a barrier,” said Baluch. “What she chooses as a career may be decided by her visual impairment, even though she has the same level of education as her peers. We can improve access to our STEM classes by providing these 3-D models which we expect will enhance independent learning in students who are visually impaired.”

“Accessible is an interesting term,” said Terri Hedgpeth, director of ASU’s Disability Resource Center. “When a student signs up for a class, we get the textbook and convert it into Braille or electronic text, and we render tactile diagrams that go along with it. That’s time-consuming and expensive,” she added. “What we are doing in this pilot program allows us to create 3-D models which provide a better tactile representation of the material. It’s very different from the line pictures we typically produce.”

If the pilot program is successful, the team hopes to lay the foundation for using the 3-D tactile boards in all 100 level STEM courses. The group is currently seeking funding from the National Science Foundation and other organizations to support the program.

“I would like to see students be inspired to take additional classes in STEM and consider majors in the STEM fields,” said Hedgpeth. “Maybe we can excite them a bit and raise their hopes for a better level of access.”
The team includes researchers from ASU's School of Life Sciences, School of Earth & Space Exploration, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and Disability Resource Center.

For more information on 3D-IMAGINE, contact Rogier Windhorst at, or Debra Baluch at

To participate in the Biology 100 and Astronomy 113 classes, contact Cindy Jepsen at, 480-965-1232 and/or Becca Dial in SESE Office ISTB4-795C, Phone: 480-965-2213 or 480-965-5081.

Image: ASU senior Ashleigh Gonzales tests new 3-D tactile boards that will be used in basic STEM courses. Gonzales, who is blind, is part of an ASU research team developing the materials. Photo by: Jacob Mayfield

(Sandy Leander)


Ronald Greeley Planetary Geology Scholarship for Undergraduate Students

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is delighted to announce the new Ronald Greeley Planetary Geology Scholarship for ASU undergraduate students. The Greeley Scholarship is supported by an endowment in the ASU Foundation established by Cynthia (Cindy) Greeley in honor of her late husband, SESE Regents Professor Ronald Greeley, a recognized founder of the field of modern-day planetary geology, and a respected and beloved member of the SESE community. Many of Ron's colleagues, friends, and family members have made donations to build the endowment. Read more about Ron here

DEADLINE: Complete applications must be received by 5 p.m., Wednesday, 12 September, 2012

Download application form here


Arizona State University researchers use EarthScope data to build the first comprehensive earthquake catalog for Arizona

Earthquakes are among the most destructive and common of geologic phenomena. Several million earthquakes are estimated to occur worldwide each year (the vast majority are too small to feel, but their motions can be measured by arrays of seismometers). Historically, most of Arizona has experienced low levels of recorded seismicity, with infrequent moderate and large earthquakes in the state. Comprehensive analyses of seismicity within Arizona have not been previously possible due to a lack of seismic stations in most regions, contributing to the perception that widespread earthquakes in Arizona are rare. Debunking that myth, a new study published by Arizona State University researchers found nearly 1,000 earthquakes rattling the state over a three-year period.

Jeffrey Lockridge, a graduate student in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the project’s lead researcher, used new seismic data collected as part of the EarthScope project to develop methods to detect and locate small-magnitude earthquakes across the entire state of Arizona. EarthScope’s USArray Transportable Array was deployed within Arizona from April 2006 to March 2009 and provided the first opportunity to examine seismicity on a statewide scale. Its increased sensitivity allowed Lockridge to find almost 1,000 earthquakes during the three-year period, including many in regions of Arizona that were previously thought to be seismically inactive.

“It is significant that we found events in areas where none had been detected before, but not necessarily surprising given the fact that many parts of the state had never been sampled by seismometers prior to the deployment of the EarthScope USArray,” says Lockridge. “I expected to find some earthquakes outside of north-central Arizona, where the most and largest events had previously been recorded, just not quite so many in other areas of the state.”

One-thousand earthquakes over three years may sound alarmingly high, but the large number of earthquakes detected in the study is a direct result of the improved volume and quality of seismic data provided by EarthScope. Ninety-one percent of the earthquakes Lockridge detected in Arizona were “microquakes” with a magnitude of 2.0 or smaller, which are not usually felt by humans. Detecting small-magnitude earthquakes is not only important because some regions experiencing small earthquakes may produce larger earthquakes, but also because geologists use small magnitude earthquakes to map otherwise hidden faults beneath the surface.

Historically, the largest earthquakes and the majority of seismicity recorded within Arizona have been located in an area of north–central Arizona. More recently, a pair of magnitude 4.9 and 5.3 earthquakes occurred in the Cataract Creek area outside of Flagstaff. Earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 or larger also have occurred in other areas of the state, including a magnitude 4.2 earthquake in December 2003 in eastern Arizona and a magnitude 4.9 earthquake near Chino Valley in 1976.

“The wealth of data provided by the EarthScope project is an unprecedented opportunity to detect and locate small-magnitude earthquakes in regions where seismic monitoring (i.e. seismic stations) has historically been sparse,” explains Lockridge. “Our study is the first to use EarthScope data to build a regional catalog that detects all earthquakes magnitude 1.2 or larger.”

His results appear in a paper titled, “Seismicity within Arizona during the Deployment of the EarthScope USArray Transportable Array,” published in the August 2012 issue of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. Ramon Arrowsmith and Matt Fouch, professors in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, are Lockridge’s dissertation advisors and coauthors on the paper. Fouch is also a geophysicist at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, DC.

“The most surprising result was the degree to which the EarthScope data were able to improve upon existing catalogs generated by regional and national networks. From April 2007 through November 2008, other networks detected only 80 earthquakes within the state, yet over that same time we found 884 earthquakes, or 11 times as many, which is really quite staggering,” says Lockridge. “It’s one of countless examples of how powerful the EarthScope project is and how much it is improving our ability to study Earth.”

Lockridge is also lead author on a study that focuses on a cluster of earthquakes located east of Phoenix, near Theodore Roosevelt Lake. The results from this study will be published in Seismological Research Letters later this year. In his current studies as doctoral student, Lockridge is using the same methods used for Arizona to develop a comprehensive earthquake catalog for the Great Basin region in Nevada and western Utah.


Image: Nearly 60 USArray stations were installed in Arizona from 2006 to 2009 as part of the EarthScope project. Station 118A, seen in this photo, recorded ground motion north of Wilcox in southeastern Arizona from April 6, 2007 to January 21, 2009. Credit: Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (funded by NSF EarthScope)


(Nikki Cassis)



An article published in Christian Science Monitor August 12 looks at the strong social presence of Curiosity, and then examines whether this mission could impact future generations of students by inspiring them to go into a science-related field.

According to the article, scholars who evaluate the state of science education worry that the United States is falling behind and not preparing students for a future that will depend more on scientific and technological skills.

Experts and scientists hope that the popularity of this Mars mission, one of the first major NASA expeditions with a wide social media presence, will boost interest in science and technology.

They are still figuring out the exact numbers, but it seems that almost 4.5 million people watched the landing on TV and that more than 3.2 million streamed it over the Internet, according to David Seidel, deputy education director for the JPL. Curiosity has more than 240,000 Facebook "likes" and close to 900,000 Twitter followers.

Kip Hodges, a professor and the director of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration in Tempe, says he has high hopes that students will be inspired by the rover. A new research facility at the school is equipped with a 3-D high-definition theater and space to project images streamed from Mars. Mr. Hodges says some scientific disciplines are already growing rapidly, with young people concerned about the environment, and that the cool factor and interactive tools NASA created for Curiosity could attract a lot of interest.

“It’s like the greatest video game in the world, you’re dealing with an avatar on another planet, and one that’s really there,” says Hodges about the mobile Mars laboratory’s appeal.




On Sunday, August 5, NASA successfully landed “Curiosity” rover on the surface of Mars. Kip Hodges, director of ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration, discussed the mission and ASU’s involvement in it, with Arizona Horizon host Ted Simmons.

"We have a deep breach into this mission, which involves hundreds of scientists," says Hodges. "Many of our faculty and students and alumni are involved with actually interpretting the data that comes back over the next couple of years."

Four ASU professors are involved with instruments on the mission. Professor Meenakshi Wadhwa is a co-investigator with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, essentially an analytical chemistry system. Amy McAdam, an alumnus, is also working on SAM. Professor Jack Farmer is a science team member for a different instrument, CheMin, designed to examine the chemical and mineralogical properties of rocks and soils. And professor Alberto Behar is an investigation scientist for the Russian Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons instrument. Professor Jim Bell is a member of the teams operating the rover’s cameras Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) and MastCam.

"Arizona is a pretty magnificent state in regards to its contributions to space exploration, both with what we do and what the University of Arizona does as well," says Hodges. "We're positioning ourselves now at ASU to be able to build more and more effective instruments for space exploration. We just finished some new laboratories in a new building on the campus of ASU that will allow us to do this in a much more profound way than we have in the past. There are only a handful of universities in the US that have the capacity to build space-ready hardware for NASA - ASU is one of them, given our new digs, and University of Arizona."

To watch the entire interview, visit: