News and Updates

04/23/2014

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, an expert in planet formation and evolution, has been named director of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Elkins-Tanton, whose appointment takes effect on July 1, 2014, comes to ASU from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., where she served as director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. There, she was responsible for leading the department in the pursuit of ‘big’ science questions, high risk investigations and long-term research.

“Dr. Elkins-Tanton’s expertise, experience and vision fit perfectly with the core strengths that the School of Earth and Space Exploration have established in the geological sciences, astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology,” said Ferran Garcia-Pichel, dean of natural sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “The school is at the forefront of developing new transdisciplinary links among the sciences. We are fortunate to attract this exceptional scientist to lead it.”

As a researcher, Elkins-Tanton’s own interests are interdisciplinary in nature. Her scientific studies explore planetary formation, magma oceans and subsequent planetary evolution, formation of large volcanic provinces, and interactions between silicate planets and their atmospheres. After graduating from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s in geochemistry, she spent eight years working in business, with five years spent writing business plans for young high-tech ventures, before returning to MIT for her doctorate. She went on to pursue research opportunities at Brown University, then joined the MIT faculty. Within 10 years of completing her doctorate, as an associate professor in geology, she was recruited to the directorship position at Carnegie.

According to Elkins-Tanton, ASU and the School of Earth and Space Exploration appealed to her for being unique in academia in their vision and action.

“At SESE I am looking forward to working more with students, and to helping the fantastic faculty bring their transdisciplinary scientific and engineering research to the next level. With the size and resources of the school, SESE is a leader in Earth and space research, and is poised for more. The energy and direction at ASU is compelling and I am eager to join the movement,” said Elkins-Tanton.

Elkins-Tanton has received numerous scholarly honors, including being named a two-time National Academy of Sciences Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow and serving on the National Academy of Sciences Decadal Survey Mars panel. In 2008, she was awarded a five-year National Science Foundation CAREER award, and, in 2009, was named Outstanding MIT Faculty Undergraduate Research Mentor. She was awarded the Explorers Club Lowell Thomas prize and the second edition of her six-book series “The Solar System,” a reference series for libraries, was released in 2010. She was named the Astor Fellow at Oxford University in 2013.

Photo credit: MIT

(Nikki Cassis)
 

04/22/2014

ASU researchers build their own ‘patch of asteroid’ inside of a small spinning satellite

A dozen astronauts have walked on the moon, and several rovers have been piloted on Mars, giving us a good understanding of these off world environments. But when it comes to asteroids, scientists enter uncharted territory.

Landing on an asteroid is notoriously difficult.

Asteroids have very little gravity, because they have very little mass. Most of them appear to be rubble piles held together loosely, with surfaces covered in boulders and gravels and fine materials, much like the moon, but with a lot more cohesion. On an asteroid, a rock the size of a bank building weighs as much as a cricket on Earth, making an astronaut like a superman. But what would you anchor to, what you would land on, and how would you move around?

Because scientists and engineers don’t know the most basic mechanical properties of an asteroid, sending a billion dollar landing mission to an asteroid is risky and even likely to fail, until some preliminary investigations are conducted, requiring years of lead time.

A team at Arizona State University is looking to mitigate that risk and improve that schedule by building its own ‘patch of asteroid’ inside of a small spinning satellite costing less than $100,000. The project is called the Asteroid Origins Satellite, or AOSAT I.

“Landing on asteroids is one of the biggest challenges of our time,” roboticist Jekan Thanga said.
Thanga, an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU, is the engineering principal investigator for AOSAT I. “And space agencies worldwide, including NASA, are very focused on meeting that challenge.”

Erik Asphaug, a planetary scientist and professor at ASU, is the science principal investigator for AOSAT I. He and Thanga plan on launching a miniature satellite later this year that will serve as the world’s first CubeSat microgravity laboratory. A CubeSat is a modular small satellite with a 10-by-10 centimeter base and various unit lengths. AOSAT I will be a 3U configuration, about the size of a loaf of bread, with two spun-up laboratories in the outer units, each housing a patch of real asteroid surface material.

In the first flight, one chamber will be filled to a depth of a few centimeters with very fine material representative of interstellar dust, or the fine ‘ponds’ seen on several asteroids. The second chamber, otherwise identical, will be filled with bits of shock-fragmented chondrite meteorite material. Once launched into space and freely orbiting, these rocks will just tumble around – itself an interesting experiment. But to build a realistic regolith surface for scientists to explore, the satellite is spun, to create microgravity-like conditions.

“We’re taking asteroid material that landed on Earth and sending it back into space,” Asphaug said. “It’s a low cost laboratory that really physically builds a patch of asteroid. It’ll be asteroid gravity. It’ll be made of asteroid stuff. We can do all sorts of experiments.”

To simulate the gravity field of a 300 meter diameter asteroid, AOSAT I spins once every 4.5 minutes. It can spin faster to reproduce the regolith (surface material) conditions for much larger asteroids. This spin configuration is easily attained and stabilized by off the shelf approaches, making it a great approach for students to learn on.

While much of the CubeSat is off the shelf, the approach is novel. CubeSats have typically been used to test engineering designs in space, since it is a really constrained and relatively new form factor. Great science has been performed on CubeSats, although this has been only observational so far. CubeSats have not yet been used to do “test tube and beaker-type” experiments of the sort that are planned for AOSAT I, Thanga said.

Experiments will be conducted robotically in the end chambers. When AOSAT I is not spinning, it is a zero-gravity capsule. Here experiments will be done to understand how dust clumps together to form asteroids – a process that plays out in zero gravity over long timescales. A simple robotic plunger is being designed to interact with the patch of regolith, and can be used to accrete a globule of particles, a miniature rubble pile asteroid that can be spun and shaken, observed by stereo cameras.

When AOSAT I starts to spin, these piles of grains will get accelerated to the outer walls. Observing that process will tell us much about nebular grain behavior and microgravity particle flows on asteroids, for example following the formation of a crater.

Once the spinning AOSAT I has stabilized (once per few minutes), experiments will be conducted to give a better understanding of what asteroid surfaces are like. “The questions are very basic, and that’s what makes this so much fun,” says Asphaug. When you push slowly on a rock, does it lock into place, or does it push aside the other rocks and slide into the surface? Do patterns form when you send a vibration through the regolith? Does cohesion dominate overwhelmingly over gravity, so that rocks stick together into aggregates? What happens when you charge the particles?

Asphaug and Thanga hope to answer these questions to help determine what kinds of devices would be best for landing on real asteroids. “An asteroid could just be lots of rock just grouped together into this larger entity, but there’s nothing holding it together,” Thanga said. “So if something is going to grapple and try to land on this, there’s nothing to grapple to.”

Despite the small scale of the experiments (the asteroid patch will be slightly smaller than a CD case), Asphaug and Thanga are confident in the real-world applications of AOSAT.

“These rocks might not be able to tell the difference, whether they are in the AOSAT centrifuge, or back on their home asteroid,” says Asphaug. Once the AOSAT is spun up to mimic the gravity field of a ~300 m asteroid (gravity field 10-5 that of Earth), then it can be used to test mechanisms for asteroid landing. The first AOSAT will use a simple arm that does some basic interactions, while next generation AOSATs will be configured with more advanced robotic equipment.

Thanga uses the analogy of a wind tunnel to describe the scientific approach to their experiments. In a wind tunnel, researchers subject small-scale models of aircraft to conditions they expect in flight. The calculations and designs are then scaled up and applied to the real thing. “We can test asteroids in this wind tunnel-like analogous system, prove and disprove theories, and get a better understanding of our models,” says Thanga.

Landing on an asteroid may be extremely difficult, but it’s also an extremely desirable goal, from many points of view. Mining asteroids, colonizing asteroids, or using asteroids as stepping stones to Mars and the other planets used to be the stuff of science fiction. Now it is on the desk of NASA administrators, who are being asked to find ways to divert hazardous asteroids, and to discover new ways to utilize asteroids, and to involve asteroids as part of the astronaut pathway to Mars.

Viranga Perera, a graduate student at ASU who is managing the project systems engineering, thinks it is “fascinating that this very low cost AOSAT platform can be used to study such a fundamental concept as planetary accretion, and that it can serve as a test bed for future asteroid sample return missions.”

Image: Artist rendering of AOSAT. Image credit: Sean Amidan

(Kristen Hwang)

04/22/2014

ASU’s Earth & Space Open House is set to take place from 7 to 10 p.m., April 25, at the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV (ISTB 4) on ASU’s Tempe campus. This is the last open house for the semester.

Visitors to the free event can attend a public lecture, gaze at the sky through telescopes, watch science demonstrations and explore the interactive displays in ISTB 4, which is located at the corner of McAllister and Terrace.

The theme for this open house is Mars and the Curiosity rover and it will feature a public lecture by Lauren Edgar, School of Earth and Space Exploration postdoctoral fellow. The lecture, titled “Water on Mars: Recent Results from the Curiosity Rover,” will be held at 8 p.m. in the Marston Exploration Theater.

Lectures are 45 minutes long, followed by a 15-minute Q-and-A session. Seating is on a first-come basis.

There will be two 3-D planetarium shows in the Marston Exploration Theater at 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. Telescopes will be set up from 8 to 10 p.m. next to Skyscape art installation.

To get to the open house, go to the main entrance of ISTB 4, located on the building’s north side.

The monthly open house is partially sponsored by the School of Earth and Space Exploration, GeoClub and AstroDevils: ASU Astronomy Club. Earth & Space Open House will return in the fall on Sept. 26.

For more information, visit http://astopenhouse.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/events/1410953095839180/?ref=22.

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

(Nikki Cassis)

 

04/21/2014

Arizona State University professor Lawrence Krauss was honored at the Academia Film Olomouc, near Prague, for his contributions to public understanding of science, and for his work in increasing awareness of science in society. The Academia Film Olomouc award for Outstanding Communication of Science was presented at a special ceremony on April 19, in Olomouc, Czech Republic.

Academia Film Olomouc (AFO) is an international festival of science documentary films, the largest such festival in Europe, held annually under the patronage of the Palacky University in Olomouc. The festival features science and educational films from the fields of the humanities, natural and social sciences, educational programs of both domestic and foreign television productions, and current science, artistic and technological progress.

“It is surprising and humbling to be recognized like this in such a distant and beautiful country,” Krauss said. “It is very heartwarming to feel one’s work has had some global impact, but more importantly, it vividly demonstrates that science is truly a global human activity which can be enjoyed across cultures, languages and religions, and provides a universal language that can bring people together.

“This wonderful award emboldens me to continue to reach out, both with my scientific research and my efforts to encourage the use of science and reason to help inspire young people and also guide public policy,” he added. “It was also wonderful to see the reaction to our new film, 'The Unbelievers,' which was screened to a sell-out crowd at the festival.”

Krauss is being recognized by AFO “because of his wide involvement in the popularization and communication of science,” said Jakub Rális, program manager for Academia Film Olomouc. “He has devoted a lot of energy to communicating physics and the social importance of science and critical thinking in general.” He was also cited for “his work in cross-topic issues where science meets popular culture, art and humanities.”

Krauss is internationally known for his work in theoretical physics, including his prescient predictions of the existence of dark energy and also of gravitational waves from the early universe, both of which have helped push forward the frontiers of cosmology. He is also a well-known author and science communicator. In addition to being a Foundation Professor at Arizona State University, Krauss is the director of the Origins Project, which explores key questions about our origins, who we are and where we came from, and then holds open forums to encourage public participation.

Krauss is the only physicist to receive major awards from all three U.S. physics societies: the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics and the American Association of Physics Teachers. He was given the 2012 Public Service Award from the National Science Board for his efforts in communicating science to general audiences.

Krauss has authored more than 300 scientific publications and nine books, including his most recent best-seller, “A Universe from Nothing,” which offers provocative, revelatory answers to the most basic philosophical questions of existence. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction within a week of its release.

Krauss also wrote the international best-seller “The Physics of Star Trek,” an entertaining and eye-opening tour of the Star Trek universe, and “Beyond Star Trek,” which addressed recent exciting discoveries in physics and astronomy, and takes a look how the laws of physics relate to notions from popular culture. A book on physicist Richard Feynman, “Quantum Man,” was awarded the 2011 Book of the Year by Physics World magazine in the UK.

Krauss has been a frequent commentator and columnist for newspapers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He has written regular columns for New Scientist and Scientific American, and appears routinely on radio and television.

He continues to be a leader in his field as he serves as a co-chair of the board of sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, on the board of directors of the Federation of American Scientists and is one of the founders of ScienceDebate2012.

Photo: Lawrence Krauss was recently honored with the Academia Film Olomouc award for Outstanding Communication of Science.
Photo by: Andy DeLisle

(Skip Derra)

04/18/2014

The ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and San Diego-based theater company Circle Circle dot dot, in collaboration with scientists from the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Mars Rover team at ASU, are premiering the play "Red Planet Respite."

Some 30 ASU scientists worked with San Diego-based theatre company Circle Circle dot dot to inspire “Red Planet Respite.” This unique production was developed with the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Mars Rover team at ASU along with School of Film, Dance and Theatre alumna Katie Harroff and her fellow artist at Circle Circle dot dot, Saroya Rowley. Written and co-directed by Harroff and Rowley, the play tells the story of the first test crew sent to experience an intergalactic resort on Mars.

Set in 2044, the play follows the would-be crew of the first Mars space voyage, a team comprised of both scientists and elite citizens. The idea for the plot arose out of some of the concerns that the real ASU scientists had for the future of space exploration, which emerged during discussions the ASU artists and scientists have held over the course of the past five years. In the play, the struggle for funding boils down to a compromise between Mars America, a scientific organization, and Globalcom, a multinational, which agrees to fund the colony as a luxurious resort as well as a scientific institute. When a disaster strikes back on Earth, the crew must face consequences and psychological extremities they could never prepare for.

Harroff drew inspiration for the piece from her experiences with community-based theatre during her time as a graduate student at ASU.

“As a student in 2007, we worked with the Mars Space Flight Facility to create a short show about the Rovers,” Harroff says. “That particular class and work inspired me to develop my company, Circle Circle dot dot. I found it fitting to pick up where I left off with this opportunity and develop a full production about exploration and the future of human civilization and colonizing Mars.”

Patrick Young, ASU assistant professor of theoretical astrophysics, and doctoral student Karen Knierman were among the scientists who worked on the project. The pair helped shape the play’s futuristic backdrop. “All of the science in the production is based on realistic projections of what the future might hold,” Harroff says, “but it's still definitely a science-fiction grab-bag.”

The scientists and artists have found great benefits to merging resources. “We had the best time speculating and fantasizing artistically,” says Harroff. “The thing that was the most rewarding to me was how much in common art and science really do have with each other. I found it incredible to see how perfectly we fit together. In fact, this experience has inspired an entire Season of Science for Circle Circle dot dot.”

“Red Planet Respite” will make its California debut in San Diego later this year.

“Any chance for the scientific community to reach out to people in other walks of life should be seized,” adds Young, who received a writing credit on the play. “Personally, I was interested in the project’s ability to increase public understanding and attitudes towards science by collaborating with artists. Showing that fields as different as astrophysics and theatre can not only share ideas but really collaborate to create new content is powerful.”

Where: Lyceum Theatre, 901 S. Forest Mall, ASU’s Tempe campus

When: April 18-19 at 7:30 p.m.; April 24-26 at 7:30 p.m.; April 27 at 2 p.m.

Cost: $8-$16; Herberger Institute students are offered free admission on tickets reserved in advance

Public contact: Herberger Institute box office, 480.965.6447; School of Film, Dance and Theatre, 480.965.5337

04/17/2014

Since the dawn of history, humans have been fascinated by what lies beyond our own planet. This natural human curiosity has spawned books, movies, missions and research that all seek to explore the mysteries of outer space.

One tool for piecing together this puzzle is the study of meteorites, the interplanetary messengers that bring missives from other worlds and help us understand the origin and makeup of our solar system.

Meteorites are pieces of space rock that wander into Earth’s orbit and fall to the surface. They come from various places in our solar system, including asteroids, the moon and even planets, like Mars.

The Center for Meteorite Studies (CMS) at Arizona State University is dedicated to studying these space rocks and applying the knowledge gained to several areas of study. Encompassing over 30,000 individual meteorite specimens, CMS is the world’s largest university-based meteorite collection.

Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of the center and a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, says that the rewards of studying these extraterrestrial rocks are endless.

“The interesting thing about meteorites is that they look like any other ordinary rock, but when you look at them in detail, their chemistry and their mineral compositions will tell you something about how they formed and the kind of environment that they formed in,” says Wadhwa. “We can learn something fundamental about the geology of the planets they formed on, which is why people are drawn in by these rocks.”

The work being done at the center includes examination of meteorites blasted off the surface of Mars, which can provide a history of the planet, as well as the status of its water and atmosphere. Most meteorites, however, originate from asteroids, which formed before the planets were formed. The study of such meteorites and their molecules also provides a timescale of some of the earliest events that occurred in our solar system.

The hunt for these specimens on Earth can require a great deal of patience. But occasionally, we get to witness the falling of this extraterrestrial rubble to our planet’s surface.

On April 22, 2012, a meteorite classified as a carbonaceous chondrite, or a meteorite that is rich with carbon compounds, entered Earth’s atmosphere and dispersed over Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California.

While studying fragments of the Sutter’s Mill meteorite last year, ASU researchers led by Sandra Pizzarello, a professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, made a significant discovery.

In addition to containing some of the oldest material in the solar system, pieces of the Sutter’s Mill meteorite contained organic molecules not previously found in any other meteorites. These molecules were released in experiments that mimicked conditions on ancient Earth.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists wrote that the organic compounds released from the Sutter’s Mill meteorite were likely formed when the parent asteroid experienced extreme heat. Such compounds “could equally have been produced on the early Earth by carbonaceous meteorites upon encountering analogous conditions and environments,” they noted.

These findings are extremely important in the study of molecular evolution and even the development of life. They suggest a greater availability of organic molecules from outer space than previously thought possible.

“Meteorites are the recipient of carbons which could have spurred all life on Earth,” says Pizzarello. “To study meteorites, to get a full inventory of what the meteorites could have brought to the Earth, is very important in the context of understanding the origins of life.”

Sutter’s Mill is an example of a fallen meteorite. Typically, meteorites are classified as either falls or finds. Falls are seen entering the Earth’s atmosphere in the form of a fireball, and finds are, as the name implies, found.

Finding meteorites on Earth without witnessing the fall can prove difficult. According to Pizzarello, finds are most easily identified in Antarctic regions, where they stand out against the white snow. However, many can resemble everyday rocks, and it is therefore helpful to recognize the differences.

Meteorites from Mars and the moon have a different chemical and mineral composition than rocks found on Earth. It is therefore extremely beneficial for scientists and researchers to collect these recently fallen samples, lest they become contaminated after spending too much time among the elements on Earth’s surface.

Elizabeth Dybal is an ASU sophomore majoring in geology who assists in research for the Center for Meteorite Studies. On the subject of identifying meteorites, she mentions a tongue-in-cheek term to classify everyday rocks mistaken for their space-based siblings.

“We call them ‘meteor-wrongs,’” says Dybal. “Sometimes these can be slag or igneous rock.”

If the suspected meteorite is marked by tiny holes on the surface, giving it a spongy appearance, it is probably volcanic or terrestrial rock. Conversely, meteorites will contain a significant amount of extraterrestrial iron and nickel, so a common test to identify them is to use a magnet. If a magnet does not adhere to the specimen, it is not a meteorite. However, many Earth rocks can also attract magnets, so this test is simply a first step.

Researchers can also analyze these rocks by their age, as many meteorites are the same age as the solar system, or about 4.5 billion years old. This helps identify meteorites because, due to erosion and reformation, no Earth rocks are this old.

Dybal studies the chemical and mineral composition of meteorites, which provides another way of distinguishing them from Earth rocks, as well as a wealth of other information.

She takes fragments of meteorites and separates minerals from these fragments using a sifter. The minerals are grouped together and then analyzed for isotopes of specific elements using a mass spectrometer.

“The data gained from this will tell us when the meteorite was first created and/or first crystalline by using half-life dating,” says Dybal. “This can help determine where or what environment the meteorite came from.”

Dybal believes the hands-on experience she is getting will benefit her in the future.

“Since working at the center in the lab is really hands-on, it’s a great experience for what I'll be doing in grad school and afterwards,” she says. “It’s given me more insight into how my classes will apply and prep me for the future.”

The benefits of working with such a renowned collection and the contributions of student researchers are what make the center so successful, according to Wadhwa. Public interest in these extraterrestrial bodies has remained constant and likely always will.

“People are fascinated by space,” says Wadhwa. “People love to answer fundamental questions about our very origins. How did life begin? Those are the kinds of questions that people studying meteorites are trying to answer, and it’s something that resonates with the kid in all of us.”

A rare meteorite found in Morocco may be the first known visitor from the planet Mercury. This sample of the meteorite, housed in ASU's Center for Meteorite Studies, is 2 centimeters wide.
Photo by: Laurence Garvie

(Lorraine Longhi)

04/16/2014

Two graduate students in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration were recently honored with renewals of the prestigious “Faculty for the Future” grant from the Schlumberger Foundation. The award provides up to three years (based on annual evaluation) of financial support for selected students pursuing doctoral degrees.

The Schlumberger Foundation has granted $6.3 million to 168 women scientists through its “Faculty for the Future” program for the 2014-2015 academic year. Now in its tenth year, this program supports women scientists from developing countries through grants to enable them to pursue doctorate and post-doctorate studies in scientific and engineering disciplines at leading universities worldwide.

Gayatri Marliyani, originally from Indonesia, and Ruirui Han, from Hubei Province (China), were among the 84 applicants to have their grants renewed.

Marliyani is pursuing a doctoral degree in geological sciences. This is her third year of funding. She focuses her research on the active faults and earthquake hazards of Java Indonesia.

Indonesia experiences a variety of geologically-related hazard, including earthquakes and tsunamis. In Java, the hazards are mostly associated with the activity of the upper plate structures as response to the tectonic subduction south of the island. For her doctorate, Marliyani evaluates observable deformation in the upper plate of Java to identify zones of rapid deformation in the area. The results should contribute to the development of seismic hazard analysis in Java, and may be useful in understanding similar subduction systems in other parts of the world.

Marliyani attained an undergraduate degree in geological engineering at Gadjah Mada University in 2005. She then earned a master’s degree in geological sciences at San Diego State University in 2011. In the fall of 2011 she arrived at ASU.

“Gayatri is a very hard worker, extremely intelligent, and an excellent scientist. Her research has fundamental value in helping us understand active faulting and it is applicable to earthquake hazard reduction,” says her advisor, Professor Ramon Arrowsmith. “She is an excellent role model and a wonderful ambassador for the Faculty for the Future program.”

After completing her graduate studies at ASU, Marliyani says she plans to return to Indonesia to teach at the Geological Engineering Department, Gadjah Mada University as well as continuing her research.

Han is pursuing a doctoral degree exploration systems design. She attained an undergraduate degree in communication engineering at Wuhan Institute of Technology in 2009 and then earned a master’s degree in electronics engineering at Tsinghua University in 2012. She arrived at ASU in fall 2012.

This is Han’s second year of funding through the Schlumberger Foundation. Her research focuses on MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS) used for Earth and Space Exploration. She specifically looks at pH value sensors of high spacial resolution used to study geobiochemistry in harsh environments, which is very important to understanding life’s origin and evolution.

After completing her graduate studies at ASU, Han says she plans to return to her hometown of Xiangyang to teach, mentor and continue her research.

“Ruirui has demonstrated great work ethic and excellent intelligence in pursuing scientific discovery with her engineering mind. As an example of SESE’s goal of integrating science and engineering, she is a unique member of the Faculty for the Future program,” says her advisor, Hongyu Yu, an assistant professor in SESE.

For more information visit www.facultyforthefuture.net

Photo: Ruirui Han (left) and Gayatri Marliyani (right), both SESE students pursuing doctorates, were awarded renewals of their prestigious "Faculty for the Future" fellowships.

(Nikki Cassis)

 

04/09/2014

If desert mirages occur on Mars, "Lake Gusev" belongs among them. This come-and-go body of ancient water has come and gone more than once, at least in the eyes of Mars scientists.

Now, however, it's finally shifting into sharper focus, thanks to a new analysis of old data by a team led by Steve Ruff, associate research professor at Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Facility in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. The team's report was just published in the April 2014 issue of the journal Geology.

The story begins in early 2004, when NASA landed Spirit, one of its two Mars Exploration Rovers, inside 100-mile-wide Gusev Crater. Why Gusev? Because from orbit, Gusev looked, with its southern rim breached by a meandering river channel, as if it once held a lake – and water-deposited rocks were the rover mission's focus. Yet when Spirit began to explore, scientists found Gusev's floor was paved not with lakebed sediments, but volcanic rocks.

Less than two miles away however stood the Columbia Hills, 300 feet high. When Spirit drove up into them, it indeed discovered ancient rocks that had been altered by water. But to scientists' chagrin, no lake sediments were among them. Instead, scientists discovered evidence of hydrothermal activity, essentially hot springs like those in Yellowstone National Park.

But there's hope yet for Lake Gusev, thanks to a Columbia Hills rock outcrop dubbed Comanche. This outcrop is unusually rich in magnesium-iron carbonate minerals, a discovery made in 2010 that Ruff played a major role in making. While Comanche's carbonate minerals were originally attributed to hydrothermal activity, the team's new analysis points to a different origin.

Cool waters

Says Ruff, "We looked more closely at the composition and geologic setting of Comanche and nearby outcrops. There's good evidence that low temperature surface waters introduced the carbonates into Comanche rather than hot water rising from deep down."

Comanche started out as a volcanic ash deposit known as tephra that originally covered the Columbia Hills and adjacent plains. This material, Ruff explains, came from explosive eruptions somewhere within or around Gusev.

Then floodwaters entered the crater through the huge valley that breaches Gusev's southern rim. These floods appear to have ponded long enough to alter the tephra, producing briny solutions. When the brines evaporated, they left behind residues of carbonate minerals. As the lake filled and dried, perhaps many times in succession, it loaded Comanche and its neighbor rocks with carbonates.

"The lake didn't have to be big," Ruff explains. "The Columbia Hills stand 300 feet high, but they're in the lowest part of Gusev. So a deep, crater-spanning lake wasn't needed."

Today, the Columbia Hills rise as an island of older terrain surrounded by younger lava flows, Ruff says. "Comanche and a neighbor outcrop called Algonquin are remnants of the older and much more widespread tephra deposit. The wind has eroded most of that deposit, also carrying away much of the evidence for an ancient lake."

Return to Gusev?

Mars rover Spirit fell silent on a winter night in March 2010, and it has never been heard from since. Spirit left most of the Columbia Hills and other Gusev targets unexplored. Ruff says that as NASA evaluates landing sites for its new sample-collecting rover in 2020, Gusev Crater deserves serious consideration.

"Going back to Gusev would give us an opportunity for a second field season there, which any terrestrial geologist would understand," argues Ruff. "After the first field season with Spirit, we now have a bunch more questions and new hypotheses that can be addressed by going back."

Because the Mars 2020 rover mission will collect and cache samples for potential return to Earth, Ruff says, that makes going to an already visited site more important.

"Scientifically and operationally it makes sense to go to a place which we know has geologically diverse – and astrobiologically interesting – materials to sample," Ruff argues.

"And we know exactly where to find them."

Photo: Comanche outcrop, seen in a mosaic of Panoramic Camera images from Mars rover Spirit, holds key mineralogical evidence for an ancient lake in Gusev Crater.
Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Arizona State University

(Robert Burnham)

04/08/2014

Last weekend, the Origins Project at Arizona State University hosted a celebration of its fifth anniversary by focusing on the future of humanity in “Transcending our Origins: Violence, Humanity and the Future,” at Gammage Auditorium. Professor Lawrence Krauss, director of the Origins Project, served as the moderator for the evening’s two Great Debates, “The Origins of Violence” and “The Future: From Medicine and Synthetic Biology to Machine Intelligence.”

View photo gallery here

 

04/01/2014

How do academic and commercial stakeholders join forces to promote space science and exploration in the immediate future and decades to come? An expert panel of astronauts, scientists, commercial spaceflight entrepreneurs and Arizona State University researchers will tackle this topic at a free-to-attend session from 6:30-7:30 p.m., April 1, at Space Tech Expo 2014 in Long Beach, Calif.

To date, collaboration among academics and business owners has been limited, said Jim Bell, professor and director of ASU’s NewSpace Initiative, a new university-wide space technology and science program. But he added that such a partnership could open up new and innovative opportunities to broaden interest in space science and exploration. Bell, who is also the president of The Planetary Society, the world’s largest public space advocacy organization, will serve as panel moderator.

“Traditionally, government and academic stakeholders have overlapped on science-based space projects while government and commercial entities have shared defense-based interests and, increasingly, civilian space activities,” he explained. “Looking ahead, leading research and teaching universities like ASU and commercial space enterprises have the greatest potential to chart new territory in everything from rocket engine propulsion and design to microgravity research, space tourism, even mining.”

“Leveraging the Academic-Commercial Partnership for NewSpace” will look at ways to create the next best practices for delivering results of mutual interest to academia and industry. As an ASU professor, Bell said he also hopes to help faculty connect with private space companies, and to identify internship and job opportunities for ASU students.

“Our panel members plan to get out of their comfort zones and avoid rehashing old topics,” Bell said. “We want to zoom in on what exactly is needed by agile academic institutions to give emerging commercial space entrepreneurs the successful future we all believe in.”

How can leading research and teaching academic institutions best partner with commercial space enterprises to advance the goals of both effectively? Scott Smas, NewSpace project manager, said that question is at the crux of ASU’s new initiative.

“The NewSpace Initiative is an added force working to create an interdisciplinary and focused movement across ASU while working with the commercial space industry in new and inventive ways," he explained.

According to Bell, both his roles with NewSpace and The Planetary Society beg the question about how to engage the general public in the future of space science and exploration: “It’s important to the broader national conversation about ways that we can recapture especially young people's interest and fascination with our space frontier.”

In addition to Bell, the ASU-sponsored NewSpace panel will include four distinguished panelists:

• Michael Lopez-Alegria, veteran astronaut, former International Space Station commander and president, Commercial Spaceflight Federation
• Will Pomerantz, vice president, Special Projects, Virgin Galactic
• Thomas D. Jones, veteran astronaut, planetary scientist and senior research scientist,
Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition
• Cheryl Nickerson, professor, The Biodesign Institute, Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, Arizona State University

The free session kicks off the annual Space Tech Expo, April 1-3, at the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center. The event is the leading business-to-business exhibition and conference for the space and satellite industry on the West Coast. For information, visit http://www.spacetechexpo.com/.

Image: Scott Smas (left), Jim Bell and Craig Hardgrove lead ASU's NewSpace Initiative, a new university-wide space technology and science program. Photo by: Andy DeLisle

(Judy Crawford)