News and Updates


Astrophysicist Steve Desch of ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration says that magnetic clues in a meteorite outline the earliest steps in the formation of the solar system and Earth-like planets.

 The most accurate laboratory measurements yet made of magnetic fields trapped in grains within a primitive meteorite are providing important clues to how the early solar system evolved. The measurements point to shock waves traveling through the cloud of dusty gas around the newborn Sun as a major factor in solar system formation. 

The results appear in a paper published November 13, 2014, in the journal Science. The lead author is graduate student Roger Fu of MIT, working under Benjamin Weiss; Steve Desch of Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration is a co-author of the paper.
"The measurements made by Fu and Weiss are astounding and unprecedented," says Desch. "Not only have they measured tiny magnetic fields thousands of times weaker than a compass feels, they have mapped the magnetic fields' variation recorded by the meteorite, millimeter by millimeter."
Construction debris
It may seem all but impossible to determine how the solar system formed, given it happened about 4.5 billion years ago. But making the solar system was a messy process, leaving lots of construction debris behind for scientists to study.
Among the most useful pieces of debris are the oldest, most primitive and least altered type of meteorites, called the chondrites (KON-drites). Chondrite meteorites are pieces of asteroids, broken off by collisions, that have remained relatively unmodified since they formed at the birth of the solar system. They are built mostly of small stony grains, called chondrules, barely a millimeter in diameter.
Chondrules themselves formed through quick melting events in the dusty gas cloud – the solar nebula – that surrounded the young sun. Patches of the solar nebula must have been heated above the melting point of rock for hours to days. Dustballs caught in these events made droplets of molten rock, which then cooled and crystallized into chondrules. 
Tiny magnets
As chondrules cooled, iron-bearing minerals within them became magnetized like bits on a hard drive by the local magnetic field in the gas. These magnetic fields are preserved in the chondrules even down to the present day.
The chondrule grains whose magnetic fields were mapped in the new study came from a meteorite named Semarkona, after the place in India where it fell in 1940. It weighed 691 grams, or about a pound and a half.
The scientists focused specifically on the embedded magnetic fields captured by "dusty" olivine grains that contain abundant iron-bearing minerals. These had a magnetic field of about 54 microtesla, similar to the magnetic field at Earth’s surface, which ranges from 25 to 65 microtesla.
Coincidentally, many previous measurements of meteorites also implied similar field strengths. But it is now understood that those measurements detected magnetic minerals contaminated by Earth’s magnetic field, or even from hand magnets used by meteorite collectors.
"The new experiments," Desch says, "probe magnetic minerals in chondrules never measured before. They also show that each chondrule is magnetized like a little bar magnet, but with 'north' pointing in random directions."
This shows, he says, they became magnetized before they were built into the meteorite, and not while sitting on Earth’s surface.
Shocks and more shocks
"My modeling for the heating events shows that shock waves passing through the solar nebula is what melted most chondrules," Desch explains. Depending on the strength and size of the shock wave, the background magnetic field could be amplified by up to 30 times.
He says, "Given the measured magnetic field strength of about 54 microtesla, this shows the background field in the nebula was probably in the range of 5 to 50 microtesla."
There are other ideas for how chondrules might have formed, some involving magnetic flares above the solar nebula, or passage through the sun’s magnetic field. But those mechanisms require stronger magnetic fields than what is measured in the Semarkona samples.
This reinforces the idea that shocks melted the chondrules in the solar nebula at about the location of today's asteroid belt, which lies some two to four times farther from the sun than Earth now orbits.
Desch says, "This is the first really accurate and reliable measurement of the magnetic field in the gas from which our planets formed."
The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

Ominous Comets, Spooky Things in Space, and Nefarious Nebulas are all on the program at the next Earth and Space Open House, October 31.

SESE's next Earth & Space Open House is set to take place from 7 to 10 p.m., October 31, at the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV (ISTB 4) on ASU’s Tempe campus.

Visitors to the free event can attend a pair of public lectures, take in a planetarium show, 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. (There's also a family-friendly Halloween Costume Contest.)

The theme for this Open House, appropriately, is Strange Things in the Sky. There will be two public lectures and two showings of a planetarium show in the Marston Exploration Theater. All seating is on a first-come basis.

The first public talk, given at 7:30 p.m. in Room 240, is "Spooky Things in the Universe," by Teresa Ashcraft, School of Earth and Space Exploration graduate student.

The second public talk, at 8:15 p.m. in Room 240, is "Ominous Comets," by Vincenzo Cataldo, School of Earth and Space Exploration graduate student.

The planetarium show is titled "Nefarious Nebulas" and is given at 7:15 p.m. and again at 8:45 p.m. in the Marston Exploration Theater.

In addition, there will be a family-friendly Halloween Costume Contest (prize: a small telescope) and an opportunity to get your picture taken on Mars. Sky viewing telescopes will be set up from 8 to 10 p.m. outdoors next to the 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. For more information, visit or The next Open Houses will be on November 21, 2014 and February 20, March 27, and April 24, 2015.

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


Everyone of all ages is invited to a whole day of hands-on science fun at ASU.

The public is invited to spend a day exploring Earth and space with ASU scientists from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Oct. 25, at the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV (ISTB 4), at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. The daylong event is designed to inspire the many local kids, parents, educators and other community members that are intrigued by science.

Earth and Space Exploration Day provides a variety of science-related interactive activities for children ages five and up and anyone interested in exploring Earth and space alongside real scientists.

This will be the 17th year that faculty and students in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have sponsored the event and used it as a means of connecting the community with science.

Together, families can experience a variety of activities, including digging for meteorites and creating impact craters, manipulating robotic arms and driving remote controlled underwater robots, and learning the science of rockets by making a soda straw rocket, to name a few. For a complete listing of activities, visit

In addition to the tabletop activities and interactive demonstrations, there will be lab tours, lectures and opportunities to engage with the kiosk-style exhibits in the Gallery of Scientific Exploration.

Space lovers can look through telescopes at solar spots and visit a replica of Curiosity Rover, matching the dimensions of the real rover currently on Mars. Several 3-D astronomy shows will be offered at various times in the building’s state-of-the-art, high-definition Marston Exploration Theater.

Meteorite enthusiasts can visit the meteorite display on the second floor, drawn from the extensive collection of ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies. Visitors can examine touchable samples, engage with interactive displays and ask staff to inspect potential meteorite specimens.

Rock hounds can bring a rock specimen for "Dr. Rock" to analyze and identify, or take part in a family-friendly geology field trip to “A” Mountain (Hayden Butte) to learn about the sedimentary rocks, volcanic rocks and geological structures exposed in Tempe. The ASU GeoClub will also be selling mineral and rock samples, along with snacks.

Lectures are scheduled throughout the day on topics ranging from space exploration to Earth’s climate.

For more information, contact the School of Earth and Space Exploration at (480) 965-5081 or visit




Three new postdoctoral Exploration Fellows have joined the School of Earth and Space Exploration, starting with the current academic year. Their terms run until 2016.

The three scientists are Sarah B. Cichy, Harmony Colella, and Monica Palta. Two earned their PhD degrees in 2011: Cichy at Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany, and Colella at the University of California, Riverside. Palta earned her degree in 2012 at Rutgers.


"My fascination about volcanoes began with a helicopter ride over and into the crater of Mount St. Helens at the age of 9," Sarah B. Cichy says. More than two decades have passed since then and she is still eager and passionate to tackle the questions “How do volcanoes work?” and especially “What causes them to erupt either explosively or effusively?”

“My main research interests are focusing on magma degassing (i.e. bubble formation through volatile exsolution) and microlite crystallization from magma storage conditions to magma ascent dynamics, and beyond”, she says. "I study these processes and their timescales through chemical and textural analyses, comparing natural rock samples with experimental run-products." 

Her interdisciplinary SESE Fellowship project will combine petrology, volcanology and isotope geochemistry to develop an eruption-geospeedometer, and is mentored by SESE professors Christy Till, Amanda Clarke, and Richard Hervig. 

As a member of the EPIC group (Experimental Petrology & Igneous processes Center;, Cichy is also responsible for reactivating and managing the high-pressure/high-temperature gas vessel lab of retired ASU professor John Holloway. 

She has a personal website at

Modeling Earthquakes

Harmony Colella says, "Geology and geophysics have played a central role in my life and interests. I experienced my first earthquake at 7 years old, and I have been fascinated by them ever since."

Her current research is driven by a curiosity about earthquake processes in subduction zones, where the largest and most destructive earthquakes occur. In particular, her work focuses on the interactions of different types of slip along the subduction zone interface and their effects on long-term recurrence rates of great megathrust earthquakes.

"Specifically," she says, "I'm interested in the probability that any given slow-slip event triggers a great megathrust earthquake. Recent studies suggest slow-slip events also trigger an increase of smaller earthquakes near the base of the locked section of the megathrust, which raises interesting questions about seismicity rates prior to great earthquakes." 

She also investigates the possible causes of segmentation of the megathrust and its effects on long-term probabilities, and how slip is partitioned between the megathurst and strike-slip faults at a convergent plate boundary.

Like most geologists Colella loves camping and hiking especially on the flanks of volcanoes with her dogs. She volunteers for a local dog rescue. Colella recently began SCUBA diving, which has added a new way to explore some field areas "and piqued my interest in marine life and ecology."

As Rivers Run

For Monica Palta, the draw is the interaction between human society and wetlands.  

"I examine water quality and quantity issues affected by human use of, and development within, floodplain ecosystems," she explains. "Currently, I'm studying nutrient and microbial pollution in the Salt River in Phoenix, and the ability of Salt River wetlands to attenuate this pollution under different climate scenarios."

Wetland systems, specifically those associated with rivers and streams, have been the focus of her professional interest and endeavors for the last 15 years. Her passion for better understanding human-river interactions began during an undergraduate year abroad in India, where she conducted a study on pollution loading in the Ganges River for her Senior Honors Thesis.

"Floodplain and estuarine ecosystems provide important services to human populations, and have often been at the epicenter of both agricultural and urban expansion," Palta says. However, she explains, we know little about how key ecosystem processes such as nutrient and water cycling interact with each other, and with pollutant loading and flood control infrastructure, in urban rivers.

As a SESE fellow, she will focus on linking fluvial dynamics to processing of pollutants in the Salt River, under the mentorship of SESE professors Hilairy Hartnett and Enrique Vivoni. 

On occasion, she notes, fieldwork in her diverse and unusual field sites has involved dragging ladders and car batteries through swamps to take environmental measurements — while avoiding both carpets of poison ivy and a myriad of poisonous snakes on the ground. In South Carolina, she once had an encounter with shotgun-toting hunters who mistook her rustlings in the brush for a feral hog.

"I never ended up uncovering Jimmy Hoffa’s body from the sediments of my study wetlands in New Jersey," she says. "But I did happen to spot one of my field sites on TV one night — it was the scene of the murder of Vito Corleone’s driver in the first Godfather movie."

Her personal website is at:




Small lava flows on the Moon's dark plains show volcanic activity occurred as recently as 50 million years ago.

Dark outpourings of lava gave the "Man in the Moon" his face more than three billion years ago. And volcanic activity continued on the  Moon until it halted a billion years ago – or so lunar scientists have long thought.

However, a new discovery by a group of geologists at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration shows that the Moon has seen small but widespread eruptions of basaltic lava during the last 50 million years, a geologically recent period.

The discovery was announced in a paper published online Oct. 12 in Nature Geoscience. Sarah Braden, a recent School of Earth and Space Exploration graduate, is the lead author; the others are Julie Stopar, Samuel Lawrence and Mark Robinson, all researchers in the school, and Carolyn van der Bogert and Harald Hiesinger of the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster in Germany.

The science team identified 70 small volcanic features scattered across the Moon's dark volcanic plains, or maria. The features show as a combination of smooth, low, rounded mounds near patches of rough, blocky terrain. The scientists refer to these unusual areas as irregular mare patches.

"Finding previously unknown geologic features on the lunar surface is extremely exciting," says Braden.

The features are too small to be seen from Earth, averaging less than a third of a mile (500 meters) across their largest dimension. One feature named Ina has been known for a long time, having been imaged from lunar orbit by Apollo 15 astronauts in the 1970s. Several early studies indicated that Ina could be very young (10 million years or less), but only a few irregular mare patches were known then, and their significance was unclear.

It was not until the scientists had high-resolution images showing the entire Moon that the full extent and significance of the small lava features were understood. These images are the product of the two Narrow Angle Cameras that form part of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera system. Co-author Mark Robinson is the principal investigator for the camera, which is on NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.

The ages of the irregular mare patch features come from studies of crater sizes and numbers within a given area by Braden, assisted by van der Bogert and Hiesinger. These crater-counting dates are linked to laboratory ages provided by Apollo and Luna samples. The results show that instead of lunar volcanism stopping abruptly about a billion years ago, it ended more gradually, continuing until less than 50 million years ago.

Activity at Ina, the scientists found, ended about 33 million years ago, and at another irregular mare patch, Sosigenes, it stopped only about 18 million years ago. (In contrast, most of the lava flows that make up the dark plains visible by eye from Earth erupted between 3.5 and 1 billion years ago.)

"The existence and young age of the irregular mare patches provides a new constraint for models of the lunar interior's thermal evolution," Braden says. "The lunar mantle had to remain hot enough for long enough to provide magma for the small-volume eruptions."

Robinson notes that the new discovery is hard to reconcile with what's currently thought about the temperature of the Moon's interior. "These young volcanic features are now prime targets for future exploration, both robotic and human."

The discovery gives the Moon's volcanic history a new chapter. As Braden says, "Our understanding of the Moon is drastically changed by the evidence for volcanic eruptions at ages much younger than previously thought possible, and in multiple locations across the lunar maria."

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera's Science Operations Center is located on ASU's Tempe campus.

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


An innovative online course, successfully developed and deployed at Arizona State University, is the basis of a far-reaching online science education project that is a finalist for a major grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation announced September 30 that a team led by Smart Sparrow, a Sydney, Australia-based educational technology company – partnered with ASU – is a finalist for a $20-million pool of funding in the Next Generation Courseware Challenge Competition.

The group will establish the Smart Science Network, a digital teaching network that will develop and deploy innovative online courseware to improve the learning outcomes of low-income and disadvantaged college students in high-enrollment introductory science courses across the United States.

“We are excited about this project because it exemplifies key design aspirations of ASU as a New American University,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “It seeks to transform society, enable student success and fuse intellectual disciplines. We look forward to joining with our technology partners to invest in new ways to educate through exploration.”

Dror Ben-Naim, CEO and founder of Smart Sparrow, said the project represented "an opportunity to bring together the nation's top science educators and empower them with the best tools we've got, in order to solve a systemic national problem. ASU spearheading this effort is a natural fit.”

Smart Sparrow was one of three ASU technology partners to be included in the Gates Foundation’s list of finalists. The others are: Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon company that designs customizable, adaptive courseware; and CogBooks, which is designing a project to provide top-quality courseware to U.S. college students at affordable prices.

“The whole learning experience will be designed in collaboration with ASU, drawing on their extensive experience in online learning, flipped classroom models and innovative teaching methods,” CogBooks said in announcing its recognition by the Gates Foundation.

The proposed courseware for the Smart Science Network will follow the design principles of Habitable Worlds, a fully online course offered through ASU Online that teaches science through exploration of the question “Are we alone?”

Key principles include: organizing curriculum around “big questions” at the frontiers of knowledge that cut across traditional disciplines; teaching concepts through rich, game-like interactive, adaptive online lessons and simulations; and deepening and evaluating concept mastery by applying knowledge in project-based learning.

Ariel Anbar, an ASU President’s Professor, will play a pivotal role as the academic lead of the Smart Science Network consortium. Anbar and Lev Horodyskyj, both in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, created Habitable Worlds, which has been offered to more than 1,500 ASU students since 2011. The ongoing development and evaluation of Habitable Worlds is supported by NASA’s Astrobiology Program and the Directorate for Education and Human Resources of the National Science Foundation.

“We developed Habitable Worlds to address some common, critical problems in introductory science education that are especially challenging for disadvantaged students,” said Anbar. “For example, many students tune out in large lectures because they teach science as passive acceptance of what is known, rather than active exploration of the unknown. Also, we tend to teach as though knowledge is organized into distinct disciplinary ‘silos,’ even though the cutting-edge questions that motivate both students and scientists cut across those silos. The Smart Science Network will apply the lessons we’ve learned in developing and teaching Habitable Worlds.”

The Smart Science Network will leverage Smart Sparrow’s adaptive digital learning and analytics technologies to develop two online “Smart Courses” that will improve student engagement and success in introductory college science courses with traditionally high levels of failure. Students in a Smart Course will explore a transdisciplinary “big question” to motivate learning of introductory college science concepts in biology, chemistry and physics. The first Smart Course will expand on Habitable Worlds’ exploration of the question “Are we alone?”

“Science is rational exploration of the unknown, not just mastery of what is known,” Anbar explained. “So, Smart Courses will not be about memorizing facts and answers, but about using logic and reasoning to solve problems, to understand uncertainties, and to train and inspire students to tackle big, challenging questions.”

In addition to Smart Sparrow and ASU, the Smart Science Network includes Achieving the Dream, Inc.; 23 additional colleges and universities, many of whom are in the Achieving the Dream network; and a research and evaluation team led by George Siemens, a world leader in learning analytics, at The University of Texas at Arlington.



Scott Parazynski, a technology innovator, will engage students and develop research and programs to support human health in challenging environments

Arizona State University’s first designated University Explorer, Scott Parazynski, has scaled Everest, orbited the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour and invented devices for surgery, spacewalking and the consumer market.

Parazynski joins the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the School of Earth and Space Exploration in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as a professor of practice on Oct. 1.

He comes to ASU from the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Center for Polar Medical Operations, where he was director and chief medical officer. There, he oversaw health care and medical screening for the National Science Foundation's U.S. Antarctic Program, both on-the-ice care and medical screenings, including telemedicine.

“Dr. Parazynski is remarkable, as a physical explorer and former astronaut, and as an entrepreneur who navigates many different areas of endeavor,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “His experience and perspective can inform ASU’s space initiatives, help pioneer our high performance medicine partnerships with the Mayo Clinic and build bridges in the areas of bioengineering, earth and space sciences.”

Parazynski holds a doctor of medicine with deep expertise in the fields of space physiology, aviation, biotechnology and human adaptation to extreme environments. He says that while he wanted to help people, he also looked to the stars from an early age.

“My father worked on Apollo, and it was always a dream of mine to go to space,” said Parazynski. “However, it only became tangible when I began my medical training at Stanford Medical School. It was there that I realized, with NASA’s Ames Research Center just down the street, I could craft a career that combined my two life-long career aspirations: to be an explorer and physician.”

Over the course of 16 years, Parazynski was a mission specialist, physician, flight engineer and one of NASA’s most experienced spacewalkers. He flew on five Space Shuttle missions, including STS 66/Atlantis, STS 86/Atlantis to the Russian Space Station Mir, STS 95/Discovery and STS 100/Endeavour to the International Space Station. On his last mission, STS 120/Discovery, he led the unplanned repair of a live solar array, a $1 billion national asset that required new tools and technical development in less than 72 hours.

Parazynski is the recipient of two NASA Distinguished Service Medals, five NASA Space Flight Medals, the Randolph C. Lovelace Award from the Society of NASA Flight Surgeons, the Aviation Week Laureate Award and Lowell Thomas Award from the Explorer’s Club for his contributions.

Parazynski believes that his greatest skill set is creative problem-solving. As a technology innovator, he hopes to engage ASU students in clinical and laboratory environments, and develop research and technology programs to support human health in challenging environments. As a scientist, his unique perspectives can support ASU’s NASA and commercial space endeavors. And as an inventor, he believes that building multidisciplinary teams offers the power to navigate uncharted territories and engineer new approaches, from the challenges of deep space exploration to rural telemedicine, commercialization of inventions and STEM education.

“Young people are excited by the allure of invention, but often don’t understand the difficulties of taking an idea into the marketplace. Math and the sciences are the core languages of the future, even if pursuing careers outside of science,” said Parazynski, who received an R&D 100 Award from R&D Magazine for one of the top innovations in 2010. “Bringing together multidisciplinary teams, including engineering, scientific, legal, financial, marketing and other expertise, is often the missing link. Many new businesses fail because they get too enamored of their idea without thinking through all the other steps.

“ASU offers a remarkable environment in which to work and teach. It is a powerhouse for innovation, entrepreneurship and student training – with the incubator at Skysong, the rapid prototyping facility at the Polytechnic School, the Grand Challenges efforts pursued in W.P. Carey School of Business, The Biodesign Institute and partnerships with the Mayo Clinic. If you get all the smart people in the room looking at a problem from all their different angles – you have a much stronger chance of success,” he said.

Parazynski was a young achiever. His first invention was a bike-powered lawnmower at age eight. Since then, he’s continued to invent, founded start-up ventures and been consultant to a myriad of commercial enterprises. An experienced diver, pilot and mountaineer, he’s climbed Everest and summited all 59 of Colorado’s peaks over 14,000 feet (called the “Colorado Grand Slam”).

“My bucket list is always full,” said Parazynski. “However, my biggest passion now is the inventive process, working with students and helping people bring out the best in themselves.”




A free public lecture on Arizona quakes, keyed into the Great Arizona ShakeOut.

What: Free public lecture program about Earthquakes in Arizona...and Beyond!

When: October 9, 2014, from 7 to 9 p.m.

Where: Marston Exploration TheaterInterdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV, Arizona State University

Speakers: Ramon Arrowsmith, Steve Semken, Ed Garnero, Sarah Robinson, and Wendy Bohon

The EarthScope National Office, ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration, and the Great Arizona ShakeOut invite you to attend a free public lecture program about earthquakes.

ASU scientists will discuss the science of earthquakes, review recent earthquakes around the world, explain new techniques for earthquake detection, and present information on historic earthquakes in our area. There will also be an amazing 3D tour of earthquakes around the world!

In comparison with California, Nevada, and Utah, major earthquakes in Arizona are infrequent, but each year hundreds of earthquakes do occur in and around Arizona. Taking steps now to prepare your family and home will help mitigate the effects of moderate to severe earthquake shaking and make you more aware of earthquakes that might affect your family and friends in even more earthquake-prone areas.

Space in the Marston Theatre is limited, and seats will be first come, first served. Parking is available beside ISTB4 in Lot 44 as well as in the Rural Rd. parking structure; parking is $3 per hour.


The theme for the September 26 Open House is Volcanoes. It features a free public lecture on the topic.
Theme: Volcanoes
Time: 7-10 p.m.
Location: ASU Tempe campus ISTB 4
The free lecture begins at 8:00 p.m. in ISTB 4 Room 240.
Planetarium shows (in 3-D) start at 7:15 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. in the Marston Exploration Theater. (Seating is first-come, first served.)
Telescopes will be set up for sky viewing (weather permitting) from 8-10 p.m. next to the Skyscape art installation.
As usual, we'll have available the exhibits, demonstrations, and activities in the Gallery of Scientific Exploration (ISTB 4 1st and 2nd floor lobbies).
And please mark your calendars: Open Houses for the rest of the academic year will be held on October 31 (special Halloween edition!), November 21, February 20, March 27, and April 24.
Earth & Space Open House website (with maps of ASU and parking)
Hope see you there!

In the beginning, all was hydrogen – and helium, plus a bit of lithium. Three elements in all. Today's universe, however, has nearly a hundred naturally occurring elements, with thousands of variants (isotopes), and more likely to come.

Figuring out how the universe got from its starting batch of three elements to the menagerie found today is the focus of a new Physics Frontiers Center research grant to Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE). The grant is from the National Science Foundation's Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics – Center for the Evolution of the Elements. Of the full $11.4 million NSF grant, about $1 million will come to ASU over five years.

SESE astrophysicist Frank Timmes is the lead scientist for ASU's part of the Physics Frontiers Center research project. Timmes, ASU's director of advanced computing, focuses his astrophysical research on supernovae, cosmic chemical evolution, their impacts on astrobiology and high-performance computing. He is also a scientific editor of The Astrophysical Journal.

The evolution of elements project also includes Michigan State University in Lansing (the lead institution), the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and the University of Washington in Seattle.

Joining Timmes on the project will be astrophysicists Patrick Young, Evan Scannapieco and Sumner Starrfield, also from the School of Earth and Space Exploration In addition, the award will fund two postdoctoral researchers to collaborate on the effort.

Take it from the top

Time started 13.7 billion years ago with the Big Bang, which produced the basic three elements. Yet by the time the Bang was a billion years old, essentially all the other chemical elements we know had formed. How did this happen?

"It takes place inside stars," says Timmes. "They're the element-factories of the universe. They take light stuff, such as hydrogen and helium, process it in nuclear reactions, and then crank out carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all those good things that make you and me."

While the broad outline is clear, details are a lot murkier, he says, and that's where ASU's researchers enter the picture.

"ASU's contribution is to provide the glue between experimental low-energy nuclear astrophysics measurements and astronomical observations of stars," Timmes says.

Ancient stars were fundamentally different from those today, he notes, because they started off with a different collection of initial ingredients – no heavy elements. But those first-generation stars are gone.

As Timmes explains, "The stars that began back then went through their life cycles and died, so we naturally don't directly see them today. But when they died, they exploded and threw out little bits of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, which ended up in the next generation of stars."

Round and round in cycles

In a process that still continues today, massive stars create more and more complex elements, then explode as supernovas and scatter the newly created elements into space for another generation of stars to use. Cycle after stellar cycle, stars became steadily richer in heavier and more complex elements.

The sun, its planets and moons all formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Most of the elements they contain didn't exist when the universe was young, so what generation does the sun belong to?

Timmes explains, "A typical massive star, in round numbers, lives about a million years. The Big Bang occurred about 7 billion years before the sun formed. I need a thousand generations of massive stars to get us to a billion years, so I need on the order of 10,000 generations of massive stars to get one with the sun's composition.

"We are the product of many, many, many previous generations of stars."

The researchers at the School of Earth and Space Exploration plan to develop computer models of stars of all sizes, masses and chemical compositions, then set them on their life courses. It's building stars in computers and comparing them to observations of stars to see how the universe builds them for real.

"The toughest theoretical problem we have to work on is how stars explode," says Timmes. "In a loose, hand-waving sense, we know that stars explode, of course, but exactly how it happens isn't well-known or understood."

The new research project fits well with the expertise of the school's astrophysicists. And there's another plus as well. With this project, ASU is joining a small group of research centers that deal with "Frontiers Physics." The entire country has only about ten such centers, Timmes explains. Highly competitive and highly sought-after, they cover subjects such as biological physics and theoretical physics.

But there's just one nuclear astrophysics center, he says. "And it's great that ASU is going to play a key role in it."

Robert Burnham