News and Updates

07/15/2014

The Marston Exploration Theater at the School of Earth and Space Exploration is currently presenting two science-themed programs: To the Edge of the Universe and The Search: Discovering Unknown Worlds. These shows alternate each Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m. and each Saturday at 1:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

Between now through August 16th we are offering a ‘Buy Three - Staff is Free’ discount. Bring three guests (family or friends), and receive one staff admission for free. Tickets are $7.50 for general admission and $5.50 for students of any age. This promotion is only available at the door (no online reservations for this offer); the box office is open 45 minutes before show time.

The Marston Exploration Theater is located in ISTB 4 at Terrace Mall and McAllister Ave.

Marston presentations are live-narrated, 3-D immersive experiences designed for all audiences. For presentation descriptions and a calendar of show times visit: http://sese.asu.edu/marston

 

07/07/2014

SESE undergrad researcher Linda Kuenzi is featured in a video from ASU news. She is a pole vaulter and aerospace engineering student researcher at Arizona State University. When she's not competing with ASU's track and field team, she's working in the lab with Christopher Groppi, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Their research focuses on building better cameras to capture images of the cosmos. In addition to receiving an "Outstanding Honors Thesis" award from ASU's School for the Engineering of Matter, Transport, and Energy, Kuenzi made the 2013 and 2014 lists for the Pac-12's All Academic Track and Field Team. Her honors thesis, designing and building an automated test system for terahertz receivers, won a best honors thesis award from SEMTE. She is a member of the Barrett Honors College and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in aerospace engineering this spring. Congratulations, Linda!

Produced by Alexander D. Chapin

 

07/06/2014

New simulations show that Mercury and other unusually metal-rich objects in the Solar System may be relics left behind by hit and run collisions in the early Solar System

Planet Mercury’s unusual metal-rich composition has been a longstanding puzzle in planetary science. According to a study published online in Nature Geoscience July 6, Mercury and other unusually metal-rich objects in the Solar System may be relics left behind by collisions in the early Solar System that built the other planets.

The origin of planet Mercury has been a difficult question in planetary science, because its composition is very different from that of the other terrestrial planets and the Moon. This small innermost planet has more than twice the fraction of metallic iron of any other terrestrial planet. Its iron core makes up about 65 percent of Mercury’s total mass; Earth’s core, by comparison, is just 32 percent of its mass.

How do we get Venus, Earth and Mars to be mostly ‘chondritic’ (having a more-or-less Earth-like bulk composition) while Mercury is such an anomaly? For Arizona State University Professor Erik Asphaug, understanding how such a planet accumulated from the dust, ice, and gas in the early solar nebula is a key science question.

There have been a number of failed hypotheses for Mercury’s formation. None of them until now has been able to explain how Mercury lost its mantle, while retaining significant levels of volatiles (that is, easily vaporized elements or compounds, such as water, lead, and sulfur). Mercury has substantially more volatiles than the Moon does, leading scientists to think its formation could have had nothing to do with a giant impact ripping off the mantle, which has been a common popular explanation.

To explain the mystery of Mercury’s metal-rich composition, ASU’s Asphaug and Andreas Reufer of the University of Bern have developed a new hypothesis involving hit and run collisions, where proto-Mercury loses half its mantle in a grazing blow into a larger planet (proto-Venus or proto-Earth). One or more hit and run collisions could have potentially stripped away proto-Mercury’s mantle without an intense shock, leaving behind a mostly-iron body and satisfying a number of the major puzzles of planetary formation, including the retention of volatiles, in a process that also can explain the absence of shock features in many of the mantle-stripped meteorites.

Asphaug and Reufer have developed a statistical scenario for how planets merge and grow, based on the common notion that Mars and Mercury are the last two relics of an original population of maybe 20 bodies that mostly accreted to form Venus and Earth. These last two planets lucked out.

“How did they luck out? Mars, by missing out on most of the action – not colliding into any larger body since its formation, and Mercury, by hitting the larger planets in a glancing blow each time, failing to accrete,” explains Asphaug, who is a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “It’s like landing heads two or three times in a row – lucky, but not crazy lucky. In fact, about 1 in 10 lucky.”

By and large, dynamical modelers have rejected the notion that hit and run survivors can be important because they will eventually be accreted by the same larger body they originally ran into. Their argument is that it is very unlikely for a hit and run relic to survive this final accretion onto the target body.

“The surprising result we have shown, is that hit and run relics not only can exist in rare cases, but that survivors of repeated hit and run incidents can dominate the surviving population. That is, the average unaccreted body will have been subject to more than one hit and run collision,” explains Asphaug. “We propose one or two of these hit-and-run collisions can explain Mercury’s massive metallic core and very thin rocky mantle.”

According to Reufer, who performed the computer modeling for the study, “Giant collisions put the final touches on our planets. Only recently have we started to understand, on how profound and deep those final touches can be.”

“The implication of the dynamical scenario explains, at long last, where the ‘missing mantle’ of Mercury is – it’s on Venus or the Earth, the hit and run targets that won the sweep-up,” says Asphaug.

Disrupted formation
The duo’s modelling has revealed a fundamental problem with an idea implicit to modern theories of planet formation: that protoplanets grow efficiently into ever larger bodies, merging whenever they collide.

Instead, disruption occurs even while the protoplanets are growing.

“Protoplanets do merge and grow, overall, because otherwise there would not be planets,” says Asphaug. “But planet formation is actually a very messy, very lossy process, and when you take that into account, it’s not at all surprising that the ‘scraps’ like Mercury and Mars, and the asteroids, are so diverse.”

These simulations are of great relevance to meteoritics, which just like Mercury’s missing mantle, faces questions such as: Where’s all the stripped mantle rock that got removed from these early core-forming planetesimals? Where are the olivine meteorites that correspond to the dozens or hundreds of iron meteorite parent bodies?

“It’s not missing – it inside the mantles of the planets ultimately,” explains Asphaug. “It got gobbled up by the larger growing planetary bodies in every hit and run series of encounters.”

Image credit: NASA

(Nikki Cassis)

 

06/30/2014

Ariel Anbar among 15 top scientist-educators selected nationwide

Biogeochemist Ariel Anbar has been selected as Arizona State University’s first Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor. This distinguished honor recognizes Anbar’s pioneering research and teaching.

He is one of 15 professors from 13 universities whose appointments were announced by the Maryland-based biomedical research institute on June 30. The appointment includes a five-year $1 million grant to support Anbar’s research and educational activities.

Since the inception of the HHMI Professor program in 2002, and including the new group of 2014 professors, only 55 scientists have been appointed HHMI professors. These professors are accomplished research scientists who are working to change undergraduate science education in the United States.

“Exceptional teachers have a lasting impact on students,” said HHMI President Robert Tjian. “These scientists are at the top of their respective fields and they bring the same creativity and rigor to science education that they bring to their research.”

Anbar, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Liberal Art and Sciences, as well as a Distinguished Sustainability Scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability, was named an ASU President’s Professor in 2013 in recognition of his pioneering online education efforts. He is deeply involved in using the medium to its fullest to help educate and encourage a generation that has grown up with the Internet.

A leading geoscientist with more than 100 peer-reviewed papers to his name, Anbar’s research focuses on Earth’s past and future as a habitable planet. This expertise feeds directly into his teaching in the highly successful class Habitable Worlds, developed through ASU Online. In Habitable Worlds, Anbar and course designer Lev Horodyskyj combine the power of the Internet, game-inspired elements, and the sensibilities of a tech savvy generation to teach what makes planets habitable and engage students in a simulated hunt for other habitable worlds in the cosmos. This innovative online course kindles student interest and learning. Beginning in fall 2014, it will be available outside of ASU as HabWorlds Beyond (www.habworlds.org), via a partnership with education technology company Smart Sparrow. Habitable Worlds has been taken by more than 1,500 ASU students and consistently receives outstanding student reviews.

The HHMI grant will enable Anbar to develop a suite of online virtual field trips (VFTs) that teach the story of Earth’s evolution as an inhabited world. The virtual field trips will be based on nearly 4 billion years of Earth’s geological record. These immersive, interactive VFTs will take students to locations that teach key insights into Earth’s evolution, fundamental principles of geology, and practices of scientific inquiry.

Anbar helped lead a multi-institutional team that developed a number of such VFTs for use in Habitable Worlds and elsewhere (vft.asu.edu), supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the National Science Foundation. Now, working with ASU education technologist and doctoral student Geoffrey Bruce, ASU professor and geoscience education specialist Steven Semken, and partners at other institutions, Anbar will build virtual field trips covering the sweep of Earth history. He and his team will take students to some of the most important places on Earth to explore how the planet came to be what it is today.

“The goal is to develop powerful and engaging new tools to teach about Earth’s evolution,” explains Anbar. “In the near term, we will create VFT-based lessons that can be incorporated into existing introductory geoscience courses. Right away, that can impact the roughly 2,000 majors and non-majors who take such courses each year at ASU, as well as thousands of students elsewhere. In the long run we aim to create a fully online course like Habitable Worlds – I’m calling it Evolving World for now - that covers the content of one of the most important introductory geoscience courses, historical geology.”

Anbar’s plan could re-invigorate instruction in historical geology, which is taught in nearly every geoscience program. In addition to being fundamental to the field of geology, it provides vital context for the search for life beyond Earth, and for the changes that humans are causing to the planet. However, historical geology is best taught through field experiences, which are logistically challenging at large universities. Even when they are possible, it is impossible to expose students to all the most scientifically important sites because they are scattered around the globe. While VFTs cannot rival physical field trips, they are a big advance over teaching this material only through lectures.

“Most science classes teach science as facts and answers,” says Anbar. “With VFTs, as with Habitable Worlds, we are trying to teach that science is really a process – a process of exploration that helps us first organize our ignorance about questions to which we don’t have answers, and then helps us narrow the uncertainties so that we can replace ignorance with understanding.”
 

Photo by Nathaniel Anbar

(Nikki Cassis)

06/26/2014

Soil moisture measurements are needed to improve our understanding of water availability in rural and urban areas. Adam Schreiner-McGraw, an Arizona State University graduate student studying hydrology, has installed a new type of soil moisture sensor in four different ecosystems in the southwestern U.S. and northwest Mexico. Currently in the second year of measurements, these probes have tracked remarkably well the moderate drought conditions in Arizona and the aid provided by the wetter-than-average conditions during last summer’s monsoon.

Many parts of the hydrologic cycle are difficult to measure (such as groundwater movement or evapotranspiration) so mathematical models are used to help estimate these fluxes and understand how the hydrologic cycle might be changing. Schreiner-McGraw hopes that the data obtained by these soil moisture sensors can be used to improve watershed hydrology models used commonly for assessing impacts of land cover or climate change.

About the size of a person and shaped like a space shuttle, these novel probes are called cosmic-ray soil moisture sensors. They are affiliated with the COSMOS (cosmic-ray soil moisture observing system) project, an NSF-supported project to measure soil moisture based upon cosmic-ray neutrons. An off-the-shelf device, these solar-powered sensors have remote data capture and can be installed in two days with a single field calibration.

The technology uses ‘fast neutrons’ generated when cosmic-rays hit the atmosphere, cascade onto the land surface and are captured by hydrogen atoms. Intermediate scale measurements are possible meaning that soil moisture is averaged over several hundred square meters. This allows observations that are in between traditional soil sensors and satellite estimates, the two most common ways to measure soil moisture. The sensor itself measures the density of fast neutrons above the soil surface. This density is inversely proportional to the amount of hydrogen bound in water within and above the soil surface. The higher number of neutrons measured by the sensor, the drier the soil is, providing a means to track water availability in rural or urban areas.

“We are currently obtaining real-time soil moisture data at three rural sites – southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and Sonora, Mexico – that have each been affected by human-induced land cover change,” explains Schreiner-McGraw, who is pursuing a doctorate in ecohydrology within the School of Earth and Space Exploration, under the supervision of ASU Associate Professor Enrique R. Vivoni.

The two rural sites in the United States are undergoing woody plant encroachment, a process in which woody shrubs have occupied historical desert grasslands, while the site in Mexico had woody trees cleared away for the establishment of a pasture for cattle grazing. Both of these land cover changes are widespread throughout the world in arid and semiarid regions. Schreiner-McGraw is investigating the effects of these land cover changes on the water cycle and the implications on ecosystem functioning, runoff generation and soil erosion.

“Recently, I installed another sensor in west Phoenix within the Maryvale community. To my knowledge, this is the first time one of these sensors has been installed in an urban setting. It is difficult to obtain an accurate measurement for soil moisture in urban settings because these sensors measure all sources of water in the footprint, so if somebody fills up their bathtub it will likely affect the measurement,” says Schreiner-McGraw. “What we have found so far is that the neutron count rate in an urban setting is much lower and more stable than in the various rural areas that we are sampling. This indicates that soil moisture is likely higher and less variable in our urban setting, probably due to the large amount of urban irrigation occurring in Phoenix.”

According to Schreiner-McGraw, these sensors are useful because they provide a single value for soil moisture over a large region that is being sampled, thus averaging the amount of water available at scales relevant for management purposes. A network of such sensors in a metropolitan area, such as Phoenix, could aid in quantifying outdoor water use at an intermediate scale, a highly elusive measurement due to the large variations among individual homeowners.

“Hopefully, integrating this type of soil moisture data into hydrologic models of rural and urban areas will improve our ability to predict the changing hydrologic cycle,” says Schreiner-McGraw, who after graduation would like to continue doing research, perhaps with the USGS, USDA, or at a university as a professor.

Photo: 72-foot meteorological flux tower in the west Phoenix neighborhood of Maryvale with COSMOS sensor installed at the base of the tower.

(Nikki Cassis)

06/18/2014

Steven Semken and David Williams, professors in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, join an elite group of Earth scientists, having been elected this spring as Fellows of the Geological Society of America (GSA).

Semken is an ethnogeologist and geoscience education researcher whose research focuses on ways that place, culture, and affect influence modes of inquiry, teaching, and learning in the Earth system sciences. His research is directed toward enhancing public Earth science literacy and diversity in the geoscience profession, and it is predominantly based in the geologically, ecologically, and culturally diverse American Southwest. He is deputy director of the EarthScope National Office and a Senior Sustainability Scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, both at ASU.

Williams’ research focuses on volcanology and planetary geology, with an emphasis on understanding the emplacement styles and compositions of extrusive volcanic products on the terrestrial planets and outer planet satellites. He is the director of the Ronald Greeley Center for Planetary Studies, the NASA Regional Planetary Image Facility at ASU. He is also the director of the NASA Planetary Aeolian Laboratory, which operates wind tunnels at ASU and at the Ames Research Center in California.

Semken and Williams join a distinguished line of GSA Fellows at Arizona State University. SESE faculty elected as Fellows also include: Ariel Anbar, Ramon Arrowsmith, Peter Buseck, Don Burt, Phil Christensen, Kip Hodges, Steve Reynolds, Kelin Whipple, Lynda Williams, and Stan Williams.

The Geological Society of America (GSA) is a global professional society with a growing membership of more than 25,000 individuals in 107 countries. Its mission is to advance geoscience research and discovery, service to society, stewardship of Earth, and the geosciences profession.

 

06/03/2014

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have assembled a very comprehensive picture of the evolving universe – and the most colorful. This study, called the Ultraviolet Coverage of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (UVUDF) project, provides the missing link in star formation, say researchers.

Prior to this survey, astronomers were in a curious position. They had knowledge of star formation in nearby galaxies from missions such as NASA's GALEX observatory. And, thanks to Hubble's near-infrared capability, they also studied star birth in the most distant galaxies, which appear to us in their most primitive stages thanks to the vast light travel time involved. But for the period in between — a range extending from about 5 billion to 10 billion light-years away — they just didn't have enough data. This is the time when most of the stars in the universe were born.

Ultraviolet light comes from the hottest, most massive, and youngest stars. By observing at these wavelengths, researchers get a direct look at which galaxies are forming stars and, just as importantly, where within those galaxies the stars are forming.
Astronomers have previously studied the Hubble Ultra Deep Field in visible and near infrared light, in a series of exposures taken from 2004 to 2009. Now, with the addition of ultraviolet light, they have combined the full range of colors available to Hubble, stretching all the way from ultraviolet to near-infrared light. The resulting image — made from 841 orbits of telescope viewing time — contains approximately 10,000 galaxies, extending back in time to within a few hundred million years of the big bang.

Studying the ultraviolet images of galaxies in this intermediate time period enables astronomers to understand how galaxies like our Milky Way grew in size from small collections of very hot stars. Because Earth's atmosphere filters most ultraviolet light, this work can only be accomplished with a space-based telescope.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 image is a composite of separate exposures taken in 2009 to 2012 with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3.

“It's the deepest panchromatic image of the sky ever made. It reaches the faintness of one firefly as seen from the distance of the Moon,” says Rogier Windhorst, professor at the School of Earth and Space Exploration in Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

"Ultraviolet surveys like this one, using the unique capability of Hubble, are incredibly important in planning for the James Webb Space Telescope," explained Windhorst, a team member. "Hubble provides an invaluable ultraviolet light dataset that researchers will need to combine with infrared data from Webb. This is the first really deep ultraviolet image to show the power of that combination."

When better reductions of these ultraviolet images became available earlier this year, Windhorst made properly weighted stacks of the 13-filter images, and put them together in a final color mosaic. This then was perfected by Zolt Levay at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

ASU students will use images like these to analyze in detail the cosmic star-formation during the last 10 billion years. Such studies have become possible thanks to the unique ultraviolet imaging capability of Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, the last camera installed into Hubble in May 2009. ASU has had major science involvement in WFC3, since the designing and building of it started in 1998.

For Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 images and more information about Hubble, visit:
http://hubblesite.org/news/2014/27
http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

Image: Hubble’s colorful view of the universe. Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)
 

 

05/27/2014

Arizona State University Associate Professor Enrique Vivoni has been named a recipient of the 2014 Walter L. Huber Civil Engineering Research Prize by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The honor is awarded to recognize notable achievements in research related to civil engineering and is generally given to younger members (under the age of 40).

The ASCE cited Vivoni for his “contributions to the understanding of ecohydrologic processes in semi-arid areas, including the moderating role of vegetation and interactions among water, energy and carbon cycling, and to the development of high-resolution hydrologic models, including the use of parallel computing systems.” The selection committee particularly noted his focus on the impacts of climate change on ecosystems in arid and semi-arid regions.

Vivoni holds a joint appointment in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He is internationally recognized in the fields of distributed hydrologic modeling; ecohydrology of semiarid regions; North American monsoon studies; and integration of engineering tools for advancing hydrologic science.

In his research contributions to civil and environmental engineering in the hydrology and water resources specialization, Vivoni has distinguished himself in integrating scientific and engineering tools for understanding and forecasting watershed processes and their spatiotemporal distributions.

Over the past year, he has made some significant advances. He has demonstrated the role of terrestrial plants on topographic, radiation and hydrological properties in aspect-delimited ecosystems; developed participatory modeling workshops in Mexico that address infrastructure and climate change impacts on water supply in rural settings; and identified the role of urban irrigation on soil moisture dynamics and its management implications in Phoenix.

“It is truly an honor to receive this particular award since it has been previously bestowed on investigators in hydrology and water resources who transformed the discipline during the 20th century,” says Vivoni. “To follow in the footsteps of Peter Eagleson (1963), Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe (1975) and Rafael Bras (1993), among others, is a both an honor and a responsibility which I hope to live up to during my career.”

Instituted in 1949, the prize has been awarded to five individuals per year since 1958. Vivoni will accept the award at the Environmental and Water Resource Institute (EWRI) Congress in Portland, Ore., June 1-5, 2014. He is one of five winners in 2014, but the only one receiving his award at EWRI’s conference.

Photo courtesy of ASU Magazine

(Nikki Cassis)

 

05/23/2014

Adaptive online science course uses rich content and game-like simulations to explore one question: Are we alone?

Smart Sparrow, a platform that lets educators create rich, interactive and adaptive learning experiences, recently announced in collaboration with ASU Online the launch of HabWorlds Beyond, a new type of online course. HabWorlds Beyond teaches students about space exploration, climate science, and the search for life on other planets. Centered on one of the most profound questions in science -- does life exist elsewhere in the Universe? HabWorlds Beyond uses game-like simulations to expose students to the thought processes and practice of science in a fun and engaging way.

HabWorlds Beyond is derived from the fully online class Habitable Worlds (SES 106/GLG 106) – ASU Online’s successful adaptive course that was developed over three years of collaboration between education technology company Smart Sparrow, ASU Online, and Professor Ariel Anbar of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. Beginning in fall 2014, college professors from any university will be able to teach HabWorlds Beyond in their classrooms, using the Smart Sparrow platform.

“With all the problems facing our planet, we want people to understand the power and limitations of science,” says Anbar. “Large lecture courses can describe scientific results but they can’t teach how science really works. “We wanted to create a new way of teaching science to people who aren’t necessarily science majors, so that they can be smarter voters and decision-makers about the future of our planet.”

Anbar and course designer Lev Horodyskyj hypothesized that the right online course could do more than a large university lecture-lab course in giving students a taste of the scientific process. To that end, HabWorlds Beyond is not a collection of taped lectures, multiple choice questions and PowerPoints. Instead, just like Habitable Worlds, it features game-like simulations, immersive virtual field trips, and a semester-long individualized quest. Students create and destroy stars, hunt for planets, search for signs of life, and travel around the world and back in time, to explore the limits of Earth’s habitability. As of today, 1,500 ASU students have taken the course, and its popularity continues to grow.

For more information please visit: habworlds.org.

 

 

05/20/2014

Jordan Okie, a NASA Astrobiology Institute Postdoctoral Fellow and former Exploration Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU, has been awarded the American Naturalist 2014 Student Paper Award for his paper titled “General models for the spectra of surface area scaling strategies of cells and organisms: fractality, geometric dissimilitude, and internalization.”

This annual award was instituted in 2009 by the American Society of Naturalists to honor student work published in the American Naturalist that best represents the goals of the society. To be eligible for the award, the work presented in the paper must have been performed primarily by the first author and primarily while she/he was an undergraduate or graduate student. The editors of the American Naturalist form the committee to consider the papers published in the year before.

Organisms alter the geometric organization and surface area of their metabolic structures in order to circumvent surface-related constraints on large size, adapt to particular environments, and optimize structures for particular functions. Employing the mathematics of fractal geometry and dimensional analysis, Okie’s paper develops general unifying theory that quantitatively elucidates the impact of these adaptations on biological form and function. Synthesizing data compiled from the literature and empirical observations, the paper applies the theory to cells and other levels of biological organization, showing how these geometric adaptations play crucial roles in cell physiology, energetics, and evolution and allowed for the evolution of life’s extraordinary complexity, diversity, and resilience.

In making the award, the editors said:

In extending biological scaling theory to cells and organelles, Dr. Okie is working at a new intersection of theoretical and empirical biology that has exciting implications for ecology, evolution, and physiology. As a broad and novel conceptual contribution on a topic of wide interest, we felt that his paper truly exemplified Am Nat's mission.

(Nikki Cassis)