News and Updates

03/23/2011

Professor and student push instrument beyond where any telescope has gone before

While there was recent controversy about the intrusiveness of airport body scanners (and the abuses of unscrupulous TSA employees) what was not widely publicized was the unique technology behind one type of scanner: terahertz imaging. Much more than just technology capable of rendering awkward semi-nude photos of a nail clippers wielding passenger, the terahertz technology can see into portions of the universe where visible light cannot travel. ASU’s Christopher Groppi is creating terahertz detectors that can look into the dark and dirty areas of space, where no telescope has gone before, to examine the making of the stars.

“A terahertz is a color of light in between radio waves and infrared. Redder than infrared and bluer than radio waves,” explains Groppi, an assistant professor in SESE.

Groppi is interested in this part of the spectrum because there are dusty gaseous sections of the universe with extremely cold dense clouds of gas, and they’re hard to see through. These clouds are so dense that molecules can form in these regions and eventually the gas collapses and form stars and planets.

“If you want to study how new stars form, you want to see the environments they form in. You want to see them right from the start, and see how the process happens. These clouds are opaque to visible and sometimes infrared light so it’s very difficult,” Groppi explains.

The complex dust particles in these clouds obstruct the view of normal telescopes as well as infrared sensors. Terahertz light is about 1,000 times redder than visible light, which allows it to penetrate dust particles. But as useful as terahertz radiation is, it is very hard to utilize and detect.

Scientists employ two main approaches to scan the skies with terahertz. Bolometers are a kind of super-sensitive thermometer that measure how light warms up the detector. But the downside to bolometers is they cannot differentiate colors so they take “black and white” images of the cloud.

Another instrument is a radio receiver; however, the difficulty with receivers is they have to work at a frequency roughly 3,000 times higher than FM radio. Only since the seventies has electronics technology been able to process the light at that speed. It is this type of receiver that Groppi has been busy building.

“We find ways to make receivers work at really high frequencies using special superconducting detectors and we have to make everything very, very small. The reason why is because you have to make parts of the receiver approximately how big the wavelength of the light is. For instance when you have an antennae on your car that antenna is about one-fourth the wavelength of FM waves at 100 megahertz; we have to do that same type of thing 3,000 times smaller,” describes Groppi.

Groppi uses a German milling machine designed to make miniscule parts of high-end Swiss watches. The machine is operated by Matt Underhill, an ASU mechanical engineering technology undergraduate student. Underhill can make parts that are as small as 25 microns or about a fourth the size of a human hair. Nearly every component of the receiver is custom built. The National Science Foundation pays mostly for the labor of Groppi and his various associates who have to hand-make almost every part of the instruments.

Terahertz telescopes are not new but what is new is Groppi’s approach to designing them. Previously, receivers could only scan the sky point by point, one pixel at a time to form a small image. Groppi’s instruments are more like a camera than a single point sensor. He has combined sixty-four detectors into an array so that he can make a picture that is sixty-four times bigger in the same amount of time.

Terahertz telescopes work best in space but can be earthbound as well. Earth’s atmosphere is made up of lots water molecules that absorb terahertz radiation so Groppi and his collaborators must place the receivers in high arid locations such as Antarctica, Atacama Desert, or Arizona’s Mount Graham.

“What we’ve tried to study with this instrument is how stars and planets form. There is a very good theory as to how a star works can predict how its life will play out. But there is no theory as to how the star begins, how it goes from gas cloud to star, so we observe the clouds to find out,” says Groppi.

The terahertz telescopes have the potential to connect characteristics of clouds to the type of stars that will form within them. The telescopes offer not only pictures but spectra of the gas so Groppi can determine what elements make up the cloud, how the cloud is moving and temperatures of areas of the cloud.
Groppi and his associates have begun pointing their telescopes at the dark patches of the sky; where there are no stars to be seen there is a cloud blocking optical light. Already they have found several young stars less than 100,000 years old, a success for Groppi and his team. The instrument has so far accomplished what it was designed to do.

What is most difficult for Groppi isn’t finding the youngest stars of time, but instead having to create a whole new machine on his own: building new eyes for man to look toward the sky, and building them without instructions or a guide.

 

Photo: Undergraduate Matthew Underhill uses a Kern Model 44 computer numerically controlled micromilling system. This system is used in the School of Earth and Space Exploration terahertz laboratory to fabricate radio astronomy detectors with dimensions accurate to 1 micron, or about 1/100th the diameter of a human hair. Credit: Tom Story.

 

(Matthew Button)

03/22/2011

Student-designed satellite prepares for lift off

On Monday evenings at five, when the crowds on the ASU Tempe campus are dwindling, members of the Sun Devil Satellite Laboratory (SDSL) meet in room 490 of the Engineering Research Center to discuss the progress of their ongoing project, a satellite designed primarily by undergraduate students. Aaron Goldstein, a junior majoring in Aerospace Engineering, is club president and founder, leading and organizing the weekly meetings.

The club’s concept was sparked by an annual Spacecraft Design Competition, offered by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). By way of these design competitions, students are enabled to design and create satellite missions, gaining experience comparable to that of actual aerospace engineers. Goldstein, having been informed about the competition from a former roommate who participated and won a previous year, became invested, particularly upon learning that the hardware, a common impediment in aerospace engineering due to production cost, wasn’t necessary in the design.

“With AIAA design competitions you can do aerospace engineering, albeit on your own time, for free,” explains Goldstein. Additionally, students get exposure to different companies and associates.

The similarity between the work experience of the competition and the experience Goldstein had gained as an intern (at General Dynamic AIS and Orbital Science Corporation) prompted him to take the initiative to start a student organization that emphasizes the same concept — designing and manufacturing satellites. Goldstein spoke with SESE Professor Thomas Sharp, associate director of the NASA Arizona Space Grant Consortium, who then directed him to speak with Professor Srikanth Saripalli, who was similarly interested in starting a satellite lab on campus.
The club began in August, 2010. The original SDSL members include: Aaron Goldstein, Tim Caine (Electrical Engineering), Hallie Gengl (Earth and Space Exploration: Systems Design), Zach Gates (Computer Science), and Matt Cunningham (Aerospace Engineering). While the number of participants in the mission has expanded, all of the original members are still actively involved, contributing much of the work. The fundamental importance of this club is the emphasis on student creation as opposed to assisting a professor or company in the design aspects.

“It gives the students a chance to experience what the process of building a space vehicle is like, and allows our advisors and sponsors to reach out to the next generation of employees,” said Goldstein.

Originally, the goal was to design a satellite that performs thermal imaging of the Earth to measure the Urban Heat Island Effect. The intent was to receive funding to independently conduct a mission after gaining the monetary support to access hardware and construct it.

After contacting scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center, the opportunity to launch with an imaging instrument the scientists were designing was presented under the condition that SDSL’s satellite function to the specifications of said instrument. The mission of SDS-1 is now to, while in orbit, measure the sun’s activity by consistently capturing solar flares in the images taken of the sun. The images will help obtain short-term information regarding solar flares. The anticipated launch date is the third quarter of 2013.

Currently, SDS-1 is in the preliminary design phase. According to Goldstein, a large portion of their effort at the moment is going into developing hardware for the C&DH subsystem and analyzing potential components for the ACS subsystem. In the near future SDS-1 will have its preliminary design review, where SDSL’s members will present the current status of SDS-1 to the mission’s advisors.

 

Photo: Team members Zach Gates (foreground) and Aaron Goldstein program the prototype motherboard for the satellite. Image courtesy of Aaron Goldstein.

(Meghan Fern)
 

03/15/2011

Highlighted in NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) team’s data release today, the final set of data from the mission's Exploration Phase along with the first measurements from the Science Phase, are new products from the imaging system known as LROC – short for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera.

Under the watchful eye of Arizona State University professor Mark Robinson, the LROC team added to the collection of raw data and high-level products by releasing new images acquired between September 16, 2010 and December 15, 2010.

The complete data set contains the raw information, known as the experiment data records or EDRs, which are processed into calibrated data records (CDRs). CDRs are then converted into high-level products such as mosaic images and maps, collectively known as reduced data records (RDRs).

According to Robinson, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, his team’s release includes 69,505 EDR images totaling 8,4981 gigabytes and 69,528 CDR images totaling 17,651 gigabytes worth of data.

The LROC imaging system consists of two Narrow Angle Cameras (NACs) to provide high-resolution images, and a Wide Angle Camera (WAC) to provide 100-meter resolution images in seven color bands over a 57-km swath. This is the LROC team’s first RDR, which represents a culmination of many months of work calibrating, map projecting, and creating mosaics and topographic maps from NAC and WAC images.

“The RDR release includes a global WAC monochrome mosaic (100 meter scale), NAC mosaics (meter scale) for 40 regions of interest (ROI), numerous NAC topography (2 meter scale) products, NAC North and South Polar mosaics (2 meter scale), two example WAC UV and VIS regional mosaics (100 and 400 meter scale), and over 8,000 WAC North and South Pole coregistered images used to create movies of each poles lighting conditions over time,” describes Robinson. “The RDR release totals over 8,400 images totaling over 2 terabytes of data.”

One of the many products of this release is the image highlighted today: an orthographic reprojection of the WAC global mosaic centered on the youngest large basin on the Moon, Orientale. This basin is barely visible on the western limb of the Moon as seen from the Earth. Its existence was not confirmed until spacecraft sent back images of the farside 50 years ago. Unlike other large basins Orientale has very little mare filling its interior, so the basin structure is easily seen. The new WAC Orientale mosaic also reveals striking detail in the far-flung ejecta blanket. You can explore the Orientale basin at 100 m/pixel and/or revisit an early version of the WAC Orientale mosaic.

The final EDRs, CDRs and RDRs from the exploration phase are now available through several of the Planetary Data System nodes and the LROC website.
 

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

 

(Nikki Cassis)

03/14/2011

Today the LROC team released a beautiful color-coded shaded relief map of Linné crater (2.2 km diameter) created from an LROC NAC stereo topographic model. LROC was not designed as a stereo system, but can obtain stereo pairs through images acquired from two orbits. The colors in this image represent elevations; cool colors are lowest and hot colors are highest. 

 

Visit the LROC homepage to view this image and a detailed description, along with a fly around movie.

 

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

03/14/2011

According to U.S. News & World Report's 2012 edition of "America's Best Graduate Schools," the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University ranks among the top 20 graduate schools in the country, holding steady in its same position as last year.

The publication’s recently released list ranks ASU’s earth sciences program 17th among public and private graduate programs, making it the highest ranking science program at ASU.

As a result of its strong, diversified team – including two recipients of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and several American Geophysical Union fellows – the school has become involved in a number of high-profile projects, such as the National Science Foundation’s EarthScope program and the development of geologic training programs for NASA’s astronaut candidate class, all of which have dramatically increased the visibility and standing of the school.

Tied for 17th, the rankings overall put ASU on par with earth sciences graduate programs at Brown University; University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, Davis; University of California, San Diego; and University of Chicago.
 

03/11/2011

Today, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), run by the Arizona State University-based team under Professor Mark Robinson, kicks off a special series of featured images scheduled to be released daily over the next week.

The series of images serves as a prelude to next week’s release of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team’s set of data from the mission's Exploration Phase along with the first measurements from the Science Phase.

“The LROC map products being released over the next week will not only serve the lunar science community for years to come, but also provide a roadmap for human exploration of our nearest neighbor,” says Robinson, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Among today’s highlighted images is the most detailed view yet of the farside of the Moon.

It was not until 1959 that the farside was first imaged by the Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft. And what a surprise – the farside was a different world, geologically. Unlike the widespread maria on the nearside, basaltic volcanism was restricted to a relatively few, smaller regions on the farside, and the battered highlands crust dominated.

Mosaics from the Clementine images did not observe the farside at illumination angles favorable for seeing surface topography. This mosaic constructed of LROC Wide Angle Camera images, provides the most complete look at the morphology of the farside to date, and will serve as a valuable resource for the scientific community.

LROC acquires high-resolution images of the lunar surface from a 50-kilometer orbit of any spot on the surface with resolutions down to 50 centimeters/pixel (19.7 inches/pixel) while LRO orbits at a speed of 5,800 km/hr (3,600 miles/hour). The imaging system consists of two Narrow Angle Cameras (NACs) to provide high-resolution images, and a Wide Angle Camera (WAC) to provide 100-meter resolution images in seven color bands over a 57-km swath.

The global mosaic released today is comprised of over 15,000 WAC images acquired between November 2009 and February 2011.

Each month, the WAC provides nearly complete coverage of the Moon under unique lighting. As an added bonus the orbit-to-orbit image overlap provides stereo coverage. Reducing all these stereo images into a global topographic map is a big job and is being led by LROC Team Members from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR). Several preliminary WAC topographic products have appeared in LROC featured images over the past year, including Orientale basin and Sinus Iridum. For a sneak preview of the WAC global DEM with the WAC global mosaic click here.

The Planetary Data System (PDS) serves as NASA’s permanent online data archive providing measurements to the science community and the world at large. As part of the March 2011 PDS release, the LROC team posted the global map in ten regional tiles. Eight of the tiles are equirectangular projections that encompass 60° latitude by 90° longitude. In addition, two polar stereographic projections are available for each pole from ±60° to the pole. The full set LROC reduced data records (RDR) products will be available for download on March 15, 2011.

As the mission progresses and the LROC Team’s knowledge of the lunar photometric function increases, improved and new mosaics will be released. These images, and the associated products derived from them, will guide engineers and scientists as they develop their plans for to explore the Moon both robotically and with humans. Monday through Thursday of next week, be sure to check LROC’s site for more stunning images and detailed descriptions.
 

Caption: This orthographic view of the farside of the Moon is just one of the many products the LROC team will be releasing over the next week. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

 

(Nikki Cassis)

03/08/2011

Stephen Hawking, Werner Herzog, Anthony Grayling, Liz Lerman and Jean Auel will be among the celebrities and scientists at Arizona State University April 7-11 for a science and culture festival.

“The festival itself involves music, film and dance as well as other exciting events that involve lectures and panel discussions on topics to be touched on during the festival,” said Lawrence Krauss, founding director of the ASU Origins Project, which is organizing the festival.

“The ASU Origins Project focuses on fundamental questions that humans ask about themselves as we are trying to understand our place in the cosmos. This is precisely where science and culture merge,” said Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who teaches in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Department of Physics in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Science forces us to reassess our place in the cosmos, but so does good art, music, literature. So what better way to bring them together to celebrate these wonderful aspects of being human, in the context of Origins? And as everything the ASU Origins Project has attempted, we want to do it in an unprecedented and exciting fashion,” Krauss said.

The events, which are open to the public, will be at various location on ASU’s Tempe campus, including ASU Gammage, and at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway. While many of the events are free, others, including a production of Gustav Holst’s masterpiece, “The Planets,” at which Stephen Hawking is scheduled to appear, and the screening of Werner Herzog’s new 3-D movie, are ticketed and have a fee attached.

Information about the festival schedule of events and the ASU Origins Project is available at http://origins.asu.edu/events/festival.

The schedule for the events includes:

Opening Panel

April 8, 3 p.m., Neeb Hall, ASU Tempe campus
Features Lawrence Krauss, ASU professor; Werner Herzog, German filmmaker; Liz Lerman, award-winning choreographer; Kimberly Marshall, director of ASU School of Music; and others.
Free and open to the public. More info at http://origins.asu.edu.

NPR Science Friday

April 8, TBD between noon and 2 p.m., radio broadcast on NPR local station KJZZ
Ira Flatow, host of the popular public radio show “Science Friday” will discuss the dynamic between science and culture with participants in the ASU Origin Project Science and Culture Festival including Lawrence Krauss, ASU professor; Werner Herzog, filmmaker; and Christopher Hitchens, author and journalist. More info at http://origins.asu.edu.

Werner Herzog Mini-Film Festival

April 6 at 5:30 p.m., April 7 at 4:30 p.m., GIOS 101, ASU Tempe campus
Short film series and guest lecture features two documentary films by renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog: “Grizzly Man” on April 6 and “Encounters at the End of the World” on April 7.
Free and open to the public.

Origins: Causation and Boundaries Symposium

April 7-8, various times, West Hall, Room 135, ASU Tempe campus.
Sponsored by ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research, the symposium engages humanities scholars in addressing and analyzing the role of humanities in illuminating human origins.
Free and open to the public. More info at http://ihr.asu.edu/events/calendar/humanities-and-human-origins-workshop.

“Dear Aliens” Contest Award Ceremony with Lucy Hawking and Paul Davies

April 9, 1 p.m., Design Center North, Room 60 (CDN 60), ASU Tempe campus
This contest encourages K-12 students in Maricopa County to think how they would respond if aliens contacted us. Winning entries will be broadcast into space at the ceremony.
Free and open to the public. More info at http://origins.asu.edu/events/dear-aliens-contest.

Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” with special lecture by Stephen Hawking

April 9, 7 p.m., ASU Gammage
Gustav Holst’s masterpiece, “The Planets,” performed by the ASU Symphony Orchestra and Women’s Chorus. The performance is a spectacular, multi-media event with breathtaking images from NASA, narration by Lawrence Krauss and special lecture by eminent physicist Stephen Hawking.
Tickets are $25-120; $15 in the balcony with valid ASU SunCard or ASU Student ID. Tickets go on sale March 8 at ASU Gammage, 480-965-3434, http://www.asu.gammage.com or ticketmaster.com. More info at http://origins.asu.edu/events/planets.

Secular Sermon with AC Grayling and post-event book signing

April 10, 10:30 a.m., Tempe Center for the Arts
Noted British philosopher, AC Grayling, will discuss his book “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.”
Free and open to the public. More info at http://origins.asu.edu/events/grayling.

A Conversation with Jean Auel and post-event book signing

April 10, 1 p.m. Tempe Center for the Arts
Jean Auel, author of the “Clan of the Cave Bear” and popular Earth’s Children series will speak with ASU journalism professor Ed Sylvester about how science informs and shapes her writing.
Free and open to the public. More info at http://origins.asu.edu/events/auel.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

April 10, 3 p.m., Tempe Center for the Arts
Acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog screens and discusses his new 3-D film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” The film explores the earliest known images produced by humans. Access to the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc caves of southern France where the images reside has been extremely restricted to protect the images from overexposure and damage.
Tickets are $30; $25 with valid ASU SunCard. Tickets are on sale at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 480-350-2822. www.tempe.gov/tca/about/boxoffice.htm. More info at http://origins.asu.edu/events/herzog.

The Matter of Origins

April 11, 7 p.m., ASU Gammage
MacArthur “genius” Fellowship recipient Liz Lerman follows her 2006 Gammage performance “Ferocious Beauty: The Genome” with a new work, “The Matter of Origins.” Sometimes we discover truth through science, imagine it through art or discern it by faith. With Lerman, we seem to touch all three. What was the beginning of the universe? What was the beginning of the paper clip, the pencil, the handshake, the kiss, the Pledge of Allegiance? Some questions are huge. Some are small. “The Matter of Origins” is a performance, a conversation, a floor show, a quiz show and a chance to meet big minds. It's a dance to watch and a dance to learn.
Tickets are $20; $10 for students with ID. Tickets are on sale at ASU Gammage, 480-965-3434, http://www.asu.gammage.com.

 

(Carol Hughes)

03/07/2011

Each week National Geographic features images in its "Space Pictures This Week" gallery. An island draped in sea ice, flares spurting from the sun, and dark landslides on the Moon captured by LROC were among last week's best space pictures.

The lunar landside image National Geographic featured was actually LROC's Feb. 23 Image of the Day, revealing the upper slopes of Diophantus crater, located on the western edge of Mare Imbrium. The most striking feature is the dark material that flowed down the crater wall. These dark features originate from several layers exposed in the crater walls.

Read more about this image of the day on

LROC's site

or see it on

National Geographic

.

03/02/2011

An important discovery has been made with respect to the possible inventory of molecules available to the early Earth. Scientists led by Sandra Pizzarello, a research professor at Arizona State University, found large amounts of ammonia in a primitive Antarctic asteroid. This high concentration of ammonia could account for a sustained source of reduced nitrogen essential to the chemistry of life.

The work is being published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The paper is titled, “Abundant ammonia in primitive asteroids and the case for a possible exobiology,” and is co-authored by Pizzarello, geologist Lynda Williams, chemists Gregory Holland and Jeffery Yarger, all from ASU and Jennifer Lehman of UC Santa Cruz.

The finding of a high concentration of nitrogen-bearing molecules in an asteroidal environment shown by the new study is very provocative. Besides the noble gases, nitrogen is the fourth most abundant element in the Sun and the universe overall. On the Earth, it is an indispensable ingredient of the biosphere, being essential to DNA, RNA and proteins. In other words, it is necessary for life's information transfer and catalytic processes.

“All origins-of-life theories need to account for a sustained source of reduced nitrogen in order to make amino acids and nucleobases,” said Pizzarello, who works in ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

On the early Earth, on the other hand, the prebiotic inventory of reduced nitrogen necessary for the formation of N-containing biomolecules has been difficult to predict. The hypotheses of a reducing atmosphere had initially allowed one to envision considerable ammonia abundance as well as evolutionary pathways for the production of amino acids. However, the current geochemical evidence of a neutral early Earth atmosphere, combined with the known photochemical destruction of ammonia, has left prebiotic scenarios struggling to account for a constant provision of ammonia.

An abundant exogenous delivery of ammonia, therefore, might have been significant in aiding early Earth's molecular evolution, as we should expect it to have participated in numerous abiotic as well as prebiotic reactions.

It also is interesting to note that the new PNAS work was made possible by the finding in Antarctica of these exceptionally pristine, ammonia-containing, asteroidal meteorites. Antarctic ices are good “curators” of meteorites. After a meteorite falls – and meteorites have been falling throughout the history of Earth – it is quickly covered by snow and buried in the ice. Because these ices are in constant motion, when they come to a mountain, they will flow over the hill and bring meteorites to the surface.

 

Photo: A portion of the asteroidal meteorite CR2 Grave Nunataks (GRA) 95229 used in this study.

 

(Jenny Green)

02/24/2011

What would you say to an extraterrestrial intelligent life form if you were contacted from outer space? Would you tell it about mountains, deserts, rain forests and oceans? Would you attempt to explain humankind’s efforts to create a greener planet? Or would you focus on who we are as the human race and what we have done?

This is the question Lucy Hawking is asking students throughout Maricopa County – from kindergarten through high school – to answer in a “Dear Aliens” essay competition that is hosted by the Arizona State University Origins Project. Winning entries will be broadcast into space by scientists at a special event on the ASU Tempe campus April 9 as part of a science and culture festival.

Hawking, co-author of a popular young-adult book series with her father, Stephen Hawking, is the inaugural Origins writer-in-residence at ASU. She hopes students will think about alien life forms, outer space, the recent discoveries of planets, and humanity’s advancements in space. But, she advises, there are other questions students should ask themselves as they consider their messages.

“Our essay writers should also consider life on Earth,” she says. “Who are we? What have we done? What would be interesting about Earth to an extraterrestrial? How can you possibly explain human society to a life form from another star system?

“This is an opportunity to be both creative and scientific in the approach,” she says.

The competition is scaled based on school level – K-2: up to 50 words; grades 3-5: up to 100 words; grades 6-8: up to 200 words; grades 9-12: up to 250. All students, from public school to home school, private school to charter school, are eligible to enter.

Hawking credits Paul Davies, a professor in the Department of Physics at ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a renowned physicist and astrobiologist, with the inspiration for “Dear Aliens.” Davies chairs the International Academy of Astronautics SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Post-Detection Task Group and is charged with responding to extraterrestrial contact, should a life form from outer space make contact with Earth.

“I heard Paul one night on the BBC being interviewed, and he confirmed that he would be the person to reply to alien contact,” says Hawking. “I thought how extraordinary this is. I wondered what Paul might say, and then thought about ways we might be able to get students involved in such a challenge. This is how I came up with the concept of the ‘Dear Aliens’ competition. It seemed such a great way to get young people involved in thinking about these issues and writing creatively and scientifically.

“Today’s students are fascinated with black holes, space travel and the possibility of alien life forms,” Hawking says. “They are reading adventure stories about the wonders of the cosmos, and I believe there is tremendous value in asking students to express their ideas, while at the same time providing a unique learning experience.”

Lawrence Krauss, Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Department of Physics, and the founding director of the ASU Origins Project says: “One of the goals of Origins is to inspire students, faculty and the general public to explore fundamental questions associated with our existence in a new and exciting context. In particular, we hope to inspire school children to get excited about science by thinking about questions rather than answers.

“Lucy’s project is an inspired move in this direction, and we hope will get kids thinking about questions far beyond the specific one we are asking them to answer.  We’re extremely excited to be working with her on this, and I think it’s a great ways to connect with and excite students,” Krauss says.

Hawking, a British author and journalist, has written two novels, in addition to a children’s trilogy with her father, about a character called George and his cosmic adventures. The books aim to explain physics and astronomy to a young readership through telling the story of George’s sometimes terrifying journeys into space. The first two books, “George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt” and “George’s Secret Key to the Universe,” have been translated into 38 languages. “Secret Key” made number six in the New York Times Children's Bestseller list. The third will be published in 2012 in the U.S.

The author says the word limits placed on “Dear Aliens” entries are by design.

“We want the students to think simply and directly,” she says. “This is an enjoyable exercise that will include creative thinking, possibly some research on the part of our entrants, and the ability to organize thoughts. If you had to speak for humanity, what would you say?

“This isn’t an empty exercise; the essays we receive will be read by the scientists who will actually communicate with extraterrestrial life forms, when, and if, they make contact,” she says.

How would Hawking respond to contact from outer space?

“I think you have to view it from the perspective of what kinds of questions might they have for us,” she says. “We are one race with many divisions; how would you explain that? We have 6,700 different languages; we have different belief systems and different political systems. But, actually, biologically, we are the same species. An ETI (extraterrestrial intelligent) life form might struggle to understand why there are so many divisions. It might look at our planet as beautiful and well-endowed with natural resources and wonder why we are treating it in such a short-term fashion.

“We should think in terms of what we have done on Earth that an outside life form might understand; what might be universal,” she says.

There is no time like the present to consider a response, Hawking notes.

“We don’t know when the signal from ET might arrive,” she says. “It could be tomorrow or it could be decades or centuries in the future. But at ASU we believe we should start thinking about who we are, and do so before we are asked to explain ourselves to a group of interstellar radio hams.”

Hawking is looking forward to reading student entries.

“Young people are the very people who may, in the future, find themselves communicating with beings from another planet,” notes Hawking. “I’m so excited to read how the students believe we should respond to contact from outer space. I can’t wait to read the entries and find out what school students think aliens need to know about humanity and planet Earth.”

“Dear Aliens” gives students a chance “to write the intergalactic tourist guide for extraterrestrial visitors,” Hawking says.

Student submissions will be reviewed by a panel of alien experts made up of writers, scientists and scholars. The deadline for entries is April 1. Only written entries by mail will be accepted. They should be sent to: Dear Aliens, ASU Origins Project, Arizona State University, P.O. Box 871902, Tempe, Ariz., 85287-1902.

For more information, visit the ASU Origins Project website: http://origins.asu.edu/events/dear-aliens-contest.

 

Photo: Characters Annie, her scientist father Eric, and George are illustrated by UK artist Garry Parsons in “George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt,” the second in a young adult trilogy co-authored by Lucy Hawking, the Origins writer-in-residence at Arizona State University, and her father, Stephen Hawking, a theoretical physicist at Cambridge. (Image courtesy of Garry Parsons and Random House)

 

(Stephen Des Georges)