News and Updates


As one of this year’s Fulbright Scholars, Arizona State University cosmochemist Meenakshi Wadhwa will have an opportunity to work at India’s premier research institute for the space sciences. She will be working on collaborative research involving studies of a unique Mars meteorite to understand the origin and history of water on Mars.

“It is my hope that my collaborative research at India’s Physical Research Laboratory will open future opportunities for my students and postdoctoral researchers — and possibly even others more broadly in SESE — to collaborate with students and researchers there, and possibly other Indian academic and research institutions as well,” says Wadhwa, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the director of the Center for Meteorite Studies.

Wadhwa was awarded the Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Award, which will enable her to spend four months in the spring/summer of 2016 to conduct research at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad (Gujarat, India), known as the cradle of space sciences in India.

Her research activities focus on deciphering the origin and evolution of the Solar System and planetary bodies through geochemical and isotopic means. She relies on a technique known as isotope analysis to measure the ratios of isotopes, which are two or more forms of the same element that contain different numbers of neutrons.

She has made significant contributions in the development and application of high precision isotope analyses that have led to a better understanding of processes and time scales involved in the formation and evolution of planetary bodies in our Solar System.

During her time in India, she will be working with students and colleagues at the PRL to understand the origin and history of water on Mars based on studies of Mars meteorite NWA 7034, also known as “Black Beauty”. Water on the Red Planet is a big deal for scientists because of the potential it offers for extraterrestrial life. Wherever there’s water on Earth, scientists have found life – and researchers suspect the same may be true elsewhere.

“We have only just begun our investigations of this meteorite — it was only discovered in 2013, and the Center for Meteorite Studies acquired a slice of it last year,” says Wadhwa.

Using a combination of state-of-the-art analytical facilities at the PRL and ASU, she will be developing methods for precise analyses of the abundance and isotope composition of water in the fine-grained minerals in this Mars rock, thought to have formed as surface regolith on that planet. She also hopes to utilize these methods for analyses of other samples in the collection of the PRL and the Geological Survey of India that are not as readily available in other museum collections.

ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies holds a 20-gram cut of Black Beauty. The bulk chemical composition of this meteorite closely matches that of the Martian crust as measured by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and Mars Odyssey Orbiter. It also contains the most amount of water of any of the known Martian meteorites.

Wadhwa’s Fulbright project will build upon recent work in her research group on understanding the water contents and hydrogen isotopes in Mars meteorites, especially in major minerals in these rocks that typically do not accommodate much water in their structure.

Each year, the U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program awards about 800 highly sought after teaching and/or research grants to selected U.S. faculty and experienced professionals, enabling them to engage in collaborative studies and research in more than 125 countries. Award recipients are chosen for exemplary achievements and proven leadership in their fields.

Wadhwa's most notable recognitions include a 2005 Guggenheim Fellowship, Nier Prize of the Meteoritical Society, Fellow of the Meteoritical Society, the Antarctic Service Medal (for two field seasons collecting meteorites in Antarctica) and an asteroid named 8356 Wadhwa by the International Astronomical Union.

She is only the second ASU recipient of this award, which is part of the Fulbright Scholar Program and is jointly funded by the Government of India. The first ASU recipient was Stephen MacKinnon, professor emeritus in the department of history.

Written by Nikki Cassis







Surviving four or more years of college is hard enough, but some Arizona State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ students go above and beyond by taking opportunities to further their education. They take advanced courses, study abroad, participate in research – and do it exceptionally.

These students receive the college’s Dean’s medal and are honored at the end of the year by their school or department.

Meet the 2014-2015 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s medalists:

Katherine Sheppard

Dean’s medal: School of Earth and Space Exploration
Major: Earth and Space Exploration
Concentration: Geological Sciences
Thesis: Senior Thesis Research: Experimental Petrology and Igneous Processes Center (EPIC)
Post-graduation plans: Pursuing a doctorate at a university.

“Katherine was hired in our SIMS lab as a student worker, and I really do not think of her as an undergraduate, but as a graduate student who has used her time in the research and classroom arenas to gain and master an amazing breadth of scientific skills and knowledge,” said Rick Hervig, professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Emily Fritcke

Dean’s medal: Department of English
Major: English Literature and History
Minor: Arabic Studies
Certificate: Study of Religion and Conflict
Accomplishments: Fritcke
 currently works for the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict as a marketing and communications assistant. She served two years as a research assistant to Yasmin Saikia studying the impact of the education process on Pakistani youth and is presently an assistant coordinator for an upcoming international conference on political Islam. Fritcke
 has been active in Arizona politics working on a Congressional campaign in 2012 and serving as campaign manager for a local high school board candidate in 2014. In the summer of 2014, Fritcke
 completed a program studying Eastern European literature in Romania, under the guidance of Ileana Orlich.
Thesis focus: Explored how governments manipulate history curricula to create their ideal citizenry.
Post-graduation plans: Fritcke
 plans to attend graduate school and pursue a career that will provide her the opportunity to promote the advancement of international relations and women’s rights.

Jenna Smith

Dean’s medal: School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and School of International Letters and Cultures
Major: Philosophy, Classics
Certificate: Symbolic Systems
Accomplishments: Smith was one of a group of four undergraduates who presented an evening on "Alan Turing and the Imitation Game," for the community group Spirit of the Senses. She has been a campus campaign coordinator and operations coordinator for Teach For America. Smith has worked in leadership positions for ASU Changemaker Central, the ASU School of International Letters and Culture, and Barrett, The Honors College.
Thesis: Compiled a body of advice that jurors can use regarding reasonable doubt, knowledge vs. belief, and legal proof, when making decisions about a defendant’s guilt or innocence in capital cases.
Post-graduation plans: Her plan is to request a deferral from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law so that she can pursue either a Teach for America opportunity or a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant grant in South Korea.

Ryan Muller

Dean’s medal: Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry
Major: Biochemistry and Molecular Biosciences and Biotechnology
Minor: Mathematics
Accomplishments: Muller conducted undergraduate research in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley as an Amgen Scholar. He was a member of the ASU iGEM Synthetic Biology Research Team. Muller has been published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology and spoken at conferences like the Center for RNA Systems Biology Annual Meeting.

“He is one of the best and brightest students that will have graduated from our department. Ryan truly epitomizes what the undergraduate experience can be for a student in the new American University,” said Wilson Francisco, associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.


Anika Larson

Dean’s medal: School of Life Sciences
Major: Biological Sciences and Global Studies
Accomplishments: Larson has worked on a project on taking education to prisons, and she leads a team on teaching biology to a group of adult inmate students. Larson also has environmental health research experience with organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Protection and School Lunch Project. She also participated in many on-campus organizations like the Prison Education Awareness Club and Health and Counseling Student Action Committee.

“She is often the one working late in the lab, dedicated to getting the job done. When she has taken the work on the road, with posters and presentations, that has proven very successful as well. She stands out in these traditional areas of study and research,” said Jane Maienschein, director, Center for Biology and Society.

Lauren Crider

Dean’s medal: School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences
Major: Mathematics
Accomplishments: Crider has published two papers on applied mathematics topics in proceedings of international conferences and has made numerous research presentations at conferences, workshops, and student research forums. She’s interned at the Air Force Research Laboratory and the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

“Lauren Crider exemplifies what it means to excel as a CLAS Mathematics student,” said Nancy Childress, associate director, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

Christopher Luna

Dean’s medal: Department of Physics
Major: Physics and Mathematics
Accomplishments: Luna has been published in a number of journals. He’s a peer mentor and helps lower division physic students. He’s also involved with organizations, such as the American Physical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Thesis: Neural Networks for Predicting Heat Transport in Tokamak Plasmas.

“A striking aspect of his character is his humility. Academically, Christopher stays grounded, with no big-headedness, even though he was top of my class. As a student in my classes, he took it upon himself to mentor some of the other students who were having difficulties. As a result, all of those students ended up doing well in my class. I am positive that Christopher will be a fabulous teacher/mentor.” -Michael Treacy, Professor of Physics

Sydney-Paige Komarnisky

Dean’s medal: Department of Psychology
Major: Psychology and Biology
Accomplishments: Komarnisky helped with research in the Kwan Warriors Lab, Las Madres Nuevas Lab, and Adolescent Stress and Emotion Lab. She’s interned at HonorHealth Scottsdale Shea Medical Center and volunteered at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Hospice of the Valley. She also was involved with the Barrett Mentoring Program for two years and helped freshmen adjust to college life.
Thesis: Momentary Associations Among Negative Affect and Cortisol: Is Alone vs. Not Alone a Moderator? Is Perceived Support a Moderator?

“Paige is an amazingly thoughtful young scholar. As a research assistant in my lab, she was one of those rare undergraduates who actively sought opportunities to acquire deeper understandings of the phenomena we were studying. She was a joy to work with, and set a very high standard for other outstanding students to follow,” said Keith Crnic, Las Madres Nuevas project.

Shelly Bruno

Dean’s medal: American Indian Studies Program
Major: American Indian Studies
Accomplishments: Bruno was involved in a number of organizations while attending ASU. She was involved in the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund and Save the Wolves Foundation while helping as a troop leader for her son’s and daughter’s Boy and Girl Scout troops.

“Shelly’s focus on environmental justice and sacred site protection on Indigenous lands are also noted in her work. She is responsible, caring and strives to improve the quality of life for people. She has a bright future and we wish her well,” said John W. Tippeconnic III, director of the American Indian Studies Program.

Jakob Hansen

Dean’s medal: Department of Economics
Major: Economics and Mathematics
Minor: Music Performance
Accomplishments: Hansen contributed to two publications that were in the Journal of Computational and Applied Mathematics and BIT Numerical Mathematics. He also has been awarded the Economics Department’s JP Morgan Chase Scholarship, the Goldwater Scholarship, and National Merit Finalist scholarship. Hansen was an ATR Center Intern, a research assistant at ASU and a participant in the CSUMS Summer Research Program.
Thesis: Downsampling for Parameter Choice in Ill-Posed Deconvolution Problems

Ryan McConnaughy

Dean’s medal: Hugh Downs School of Human Communication
Major: Communication, Sociology
Accomplishments: McConnaughy has received numerous academic awards, and is a member of several academic and professional organizations, including the Association of Human Communication, the National Communication Association and Phi Theta Kappa. McConnaughy, a Navy veteran, is a member of the Barrett Veteran Advisory Group, who strive to increase Veteran’s interest in Barrett and recruit more Veteran students. He has also worked with Barrett Association of Transfer Students, to assist incoming students with their transition to ASU. McConnaughy has also volunteered with Arizona Special Olympics.
Thesis: Battlefield to Classroom: Issues Veteran Students face communicating in the classroom

Jaylee Conlin

Dean’s medal: School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning
Major: Geography and Computer Science
Accomplishments: v was selected for the NASA Student Airborne Program and spent the summer doing research with NASA. She won the Outstanding Student Paper Award at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in 2014.

“We went with Jaylee Conlin because of the rigor of her programs of study plus two other qualities. She was selected for the prestigious NASA Student Airborne Program, spending the summer doing research with NASA involving flight work, and as product of this research won the Outstanding Student Paper Award in the December meeting of the AGU (American Geophysical Union). There were several winners, but the competition is national and Colin was up against students from elite institutions across the country,” said Billie L. Turner, Gilbert F. White Professor of Environment and Society, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Hannah McAtee

Dean’s medal: School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Major: Global Health and Pre Medicine
Minor: Spanish
Accomplishments: McAtee has been recognized in a variety of different scholar programs, such as the Tillman Scholar, Barrett-Mayo Premedical Scholar and Grady and Kathryn Gammage Memorial Scholar. She’s interned twice for World Food Prize in India and Washington, D.C. as well as volunteering at Make-A-Wish and Trinity Hospital.

“Since her first days in our lab, Hannah has indicated that her career goal is to be a medical doctor and unlike many students, she truly understands the commitment she is making in this regard. Next year, Hannah will be moving on to medical school at one of the four institutions to which she was accepted. I am confident that Hannah will find success in all her future endeavors,” said Anika Hutchinson, aademic success specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Alyssa Timms

Dean’s medal: School of Politics and Global Studies
Major: Political Science
Minor: Military Leadership
Certificate: Political Entrepreneurship
Accomplishments: Timms is a Reserve Officer Training Corps member. She interned in Washington, D.C. for a member of Congress while enrolled in the McCain Institute. She also was a part of the Junior Fellows program in the School of Politics and Global Studies.

“To my knowledge, we have not recognized her [enough] as the outstanding student that she is. Whether she follows a military career or a career in governmental service, she is well prepared and has the drive and determination to succeed and make us proud,” said Richard Herrera, associate director, School of Politics and Global Studies.

Abbey Pellino

Dean’s medal: T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics
Major: Sociology and Global Studies
Certificate: Religion and Conflict and International Studies
Accomplishments: Pellino is an undergraduate research fellow with the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. She had the opportunity to work on the Kakehashi Project in Japan where she exchanged ideas with local business owners, students and government officials. She also participated in a Semester at Sea and she was an American Rotaract Representative in the Ukraine in 2012.

“It was always a pleasure to work with her and to share ideas about her future career path. She has a positive and outgoing personality, and she is eager to continue her education in global affairs. She is a shining example of one of our many outstanding students in the Sanford School,” said Lois Laynor Goldblatt, academic success coordinator.

Samantha Sidoti

Dean’s medal: School of Social Transformation
Major: Women & Gender Studies and Human Communication
Accomplishments: Sidoti has helped freshmen through their college experience as an ASU Community Assistant, Senior Community Mentor and First Year Success Coach. She worked with the Purple Ribbon Council, a nonprofit focused on preventing teen dating violence.
Post-graduation plans: She will spend the next two years as a corps member of Teach For America.

Tate Desper

Dean’s medal: School of Transborder Studies
Major: Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies and Spanish Linguistics
Accomplishments: Tate has helped with research at Brown University’s Department of Anthropology and the Wells Fargo Fellowship’s Latino Undergraduate Research Collaborative. She is a recipient of the Wells Fargo Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies Research Scholarship.
Thesis: Rivera & Livramento: Linguistic Identity on the Uruguay-Brazil Border

“There is no doubt that Tate is an exceptional student, who will continue to be successful in her future endeavors,” said Edward Escobar, acting director and associate professor, School of Transborder Studies.

Written by Alicia Canales



ASU researchers are hoping to work with NASA to find out

Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus may offer the next best hope for finding life elsewhere in our solar system, astrobiologists now say. An article published in Forbes April 29 by Bruce Dorminey titled, “NASA May Plumb For Signs Of Life In Enceladus' Plumes” discusses two potential mission proposals to Enceladus to sample its towering geyser-like plumes of water erupting from its frozen surface.

Both proposed NASA missions involve ASU researchers.

The Cassini spacecraft discovered an icy plume erupting from an ancient salty ocean inside Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and proved it contains organic molecules. These factors, added with the icy satellites geothermal energy, make plausible the idea that life exists on this tiny moon.

The first proposed mission, called ELF (short for Enceladus Life Finder), would follow in Cassini’s footsteps, using two state-of-the-art instruments to measure the ocean’s history, habitability and biotic state.

ASU professors Ariel Anbar and Everett Shock make up the ASU portion of the multi-institutional team that designed the proposal.

“If you really want to look someplace in the solar system and determine whether life could independently arise on any body, then Enceladus is a great bet,” Anbar is quoted as saying in the Forbes article.

While giant-geysers erupting over an icy surface sound fascinating, astrobiologists aren’t expecting to find life there. It’s the warmer, liquid waters beneath the surface that interests them.

The article quotes Anbar as saying, ““It’s not likely that anything is living in the plumes because the particles freeze pretty fast when exposed to space. But there could be things living in the oceans that the plumes are sampling.”

The proposed ELF mission would make use of today’s capabilities, including mass spectrometers of much higher resolution, range, and that would measure key chemical indicators of just how habitable Enceladus’ ocean such as temperature, pH, and oxidation state.

Of course, the only way to tell if life exists in Enceladus’ subsurface ocean is to collect ocean water samples – which is what the second proposed mission, dubbed LIFE (short for Life Investigations For Enceladus), seeks to do.

Image: This photo of water geysers spouting from Saturn's moon Enceladus was taken by NASA's Cassini orbiter in October 2007
Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA 

Written by Nikki Cassis


What could you do with some scavenged supplies from the local convenience store? Create an autonomous time-lapse camera, of course!

At least, that's what graduate student Mike Veto did. He and eight other Arizona State University students participated in an experimental seminar devised to bring back the problem-solving spirit while training a new generation of hybrid scientist-engineers.

The class, called Field Engineering seminar, was offered during the spring semester to students in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. It’s taught by Andrew Klesh, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission architect and ASU adjunct faculty member.

Klesh unofficially refers to the class as “MacGyver 101,” referring to the 1980s TV secret agent with the sweet mullet who could solve any problem with common items like duct tape, gum, a paperclip and his scientific genius.

One of the challenges the students were tasked with was building an autonomous time-lapse camera – from a remote-control "Bob the Builder" toy tractor and a disposable 35mm camera.

“The idea is that you can buy a toy at your nearest gas station out in the field and crack it open to find the necessary electronic and mechanical components to solve a problem,” Veto said.

In the class, students participated in a number of lectures and labs, each building on previous lessons and all designed to cross-train scientists and engineers in basic skills – chemistry, geology, electronics, troubleshooting – so that they can pull off miracles in the field when something breaks down, or when they forget that one important instrument.

“There were not very many instructions or guidance, which was very exciting because it emulates the real-world, in-the-field experience," Veto said. "You're given a problem and you just have to figure out how to solve it. There are no instructions."

The class focuses on real-world experiences and problems, and it is designed to both illustrate and solve realistic field scenarios.

Throughout the course, students pulled from their own experience to educate others on field-specific skills (sampling at a volcano, geologic sampling, how to make a field radio, how to signal for help, etc.).

“The entire class, myself included, was learning from each other, similar to how skills are shared amongst a team in the field,” Klesh said. “A great scientist-engineer needs to apply that MacGyver-esque mind-set of being flexible and making do with limited resources.”

The class began by learning what resources and problems might be encountered in a small electronic vehicle, and ended with having to use these parts in the invention of a field instrument.

At this point, there is no website or program description for the Field Engineering seminar, as it's not an official course. NASA/JPL supported this trial course through their Center for Academic Partnership program, with the hope that this course will better educate students for future field work, creating desirable candidates for JPL positions.

Image: Nine ASU students asked, “What would MacGyver do?” during a Field Engineering seminar that required them to create a time-lapse camera from "scavenged" supplies. The seminar is the first in a partnership with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory devised for ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration students. Photo courtesy Andy Klesh

Written by Nikki Cassis



Despite having research experience, Katherine Sheppard, an earth and space exploration student with a focus in geological sciences, said she wasn’t sure if she was capable of her career goals because the work is technical and difficult.

Then a younger student asked her a question during an ASU GeoClub field trip, and Sheppard found herself answering it.

“I remember going from thinking I didn’t know anything at all to realizing I did know some things and that I would be able to know more,” Sheppard said. “That was a great moment because it opened up opportunities for me.”

As a senior, Sheppard is looking at graduate school as the next step toward earning her doctorate in geochemistry or igneous petrology, which is the study of igneous rocks. She had trouble at first narrowing a niche down, but she feels more confident in her decision to pursue igneous petrology because of her past experiences at ASU.

“I was able to do that with all research opportunities because I got to do a lot of things and decide what was cool and what I’d want to do,” Sheppard said.

Christy Till, an assistant professor at the school, also said Sheppard has performed at levels beyond her current education. Till, Sheppard’s honors thesis director, said she believes Sheppard’s research will be published in a journal in the future.

Sheppard is studying lava flows from Lassen volcanoes, which are volcanoes in northern California, to understand how they form in the Earth’s mantel. This will help people understand how and why these volcanoes form where they do.

“She picks up on concepts really fast and runs with them on her own without a lot of guidance,” Till said. “She’s good at integrating concepts together to form a foundation for future work.”

After switching majors within the School of Earth and Space Exploration, Sheppard took a freshman-year honors seminar course taught by former geology professor Achim Hermann. When she went to his office to talk about a paper, they ended up talking about his research.

She worked with him in the Keck Lab on environmental geochemistry as a freshman and sophomore. She said she liked being able to experience what it’s like to read results of research rather than conducting research.

“The sooner you get that experience, the better you adjust yourself to the expectations of what it’s actually like,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard also spent time working in the Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry Lab at ASU during her junior and senior year. The lab is utilized by geoscience researchers to analyze the ion source design in various materials. Richard Hervig, a professor at the school, had asked her to work there after seeing her involvement in his class and her term paper.

“She has a reputation in our school as doing well in everything,” Hervig said. “In lab environment, she’s been great.”

In between all of her studies, Sheppard was involved with different student organizations. She is president of the ASU GeoClub, and she helps organize and raise money for trips to different sites. She also was involved with the ASU Quidditch team, the sport described in the Harry Potter series. She had to stop and prioritize time for her thesis over the sport, she said. Sheppard said prioritizing helped her throughout her college experience; however, that didn’t mean she always put school work first.

“If you’re becoming miserable studying, sometimes you have to stop studying and do something else,” Sheppard said. “I’m a big proponent of doing something else."

Image: Katherine Sheppard is a senior studying geology at ASU. She is president of the GeoClub, and she organizes trips for students. Last summer, they went to Yosemite National Park in California.
Photo by: Photo courtesy of Katherine Sheppard

Written by Alicia Canales



The list of potential life-supporting planets just got a little shorter

As the search continues for Earth-size planets orbiting at just the right distance from their star, a region termed the habitable zone, the number of potentially life-supporting planets grows. In two decades we have progressed from having no extrasolar planets to having too many to search. Narrowing the list of hopefuls requires looking at extrasolar planets in a new way. Applying a nuanced approach that couples astronomy and geophysics, Arizona State University researchers report that from that long list we can cross off cosmic neighbor Tau Ceti.

The Tau Ceti system, popularized in several fictional works, including Star Trek, has long been used in science fiction, and even popular news, as a very likely place to have life due to its proximity to Earth and the star’s sun-like characteristics. Since December 2012 Tau Ceti has become even more appealing, thanks to evidence of possibly five planets orbiting it, with two of these – Tau Ceti e and f – potentially residing in the habitable zone.

Using the chemical composition of Tau Ceti, the ASU team modeled the star’s evolution and calculated its habitable zone. Although their data confirms that two planets (e and f) may be in the habitable zone it doesn’t mean life flourishes or even exists there.

“Planet e is in the habitable zone only if we make very generous assumptions. Planet f initially looks more promising, but modeling the evolution of the star makes it seem probable that it has only moved into the habitable zone recently as Tau Ceti has gotten more luminous over the course of its life,” explains astrophysicist Michael Pagano, ASU postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper appearing in the Astrophysical Journal. The collaboration also included ASU astrophysicists Patrick Young and Amanda Truitt and mineral physicist Sang-Heon (Dan) Shim.

Based upon the team’s models, planet f has likely been in the habitable zone much less than 1 billion years. This sounds like a long time, but it took Earth’s biosphere about 2 billion years to produce potentially detectable changes in its atmosphere. A planet that entered the habitable zone only a few hundred million years ago may well be habitable and even inhabited, but not have detectable biosignatures.

According to Pagano, he and his collaborators didn’t pick Tau Ceti “hoping, wanting, or thinking” it would be a good candidate to look for life, but for the idea that these might be truly alien new worlds.

Tau Ceti has a highly unusual composition with respect to its ratio of magnesium and silicon, which are two of the most important rock forming minerals on Earth. The ratio of magnesium to silicon in Tau Ceti is 1.78, which is about 70% more than our sun.

The astrophysicists looked at the data and asked, “What does this mean for the planets?”

Building on the strengths of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, which unites earth and space scientists in an effort to tackle research questions through a holistic approach, Shim was brought on board for his mineral expertise to provide insights into the possible nature of the planets themselves.

“With such a high magnesium and silicon ratio it is possible that the mineralogical make-up of planets around Tau Ceti could be significantly different from that of Earth. Tau Ceti’s planets could very well be dominated by the mineral olivine at shallow parts of the mantle and have lower mantles dominated by ferropericlase,” explains Shim.

Considering that ferropericlase is much less viscous, or resistant to flowing, hot, yet solid, mantle rock would flow more easily, possibly having profound effects on volcanism and tectonics at the planetary surface, processes which have a significant impact on the habitability of Earth.

“This is a reminder that geological processes are fundamental in understanding the habitability of planets,” Shim adds.

“Tau Ceti has been a popular destination for science fiction writers and everyone's imagination as somewhere there could possibly be life, but even though life around Tau Ceti may be unlikely, it should not be seen as a letdown, but should invigorate our minds to consider what exotic planets likely orbit the star, and the new and unusual planets that may exist in this vast universe,” says Pagano.

This work was supported by funding from the NASA Astrobiology Institute and NASA Nexus for Exoplanet System Science.


Image 1 caption: How would an alien world like this look? That’s the question that undergraduate art major Joshua Gonzalez attempted to answer. He worked with Professor Patrick Young’s group to learn how to analyze stellar spectra to find chemical abundances, and inspired by the scientific results, he created two digital paintings of possible unusual extrasolar planets, one being Tau Ceti for his Barrett Honors Thesis. Credit: Joshua Gonzales

Written by Nikki Cassis



Save the date!

Sara Imari Walker, assistant professor in SESE, will be appearing in season 6 of “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman”. The episode in which she appears is titled “Are We Here for a Reason?” and it is scheduled to air on Wednesday, May 13th on Discovery’s Science Channel, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.



For centuries, humans have sought to learn whether life exists beyond Earth. That answer is closer than ever to fulfillment, and an ASU team is working on a key part of that quest with NASA’s backing.

Thousands of exoplanets (planets around other stars) have been discovered in the past decade, and the next decade likely will bring advances in detecting possible signs of life. One way of doing that is looking at the atmospheric makeup of these planets: Do oxygen or methane – gases that on Earth arise from the action of life – exist there, and are they in fact indicative of life?

“In the field of exoplanets, finding exoplanets that could host life is no longer the goal. The quest is to find the signatures of life,” said Steve Desch, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “To do that we need to know for which types of exoplanets are oxygen and methane biosignatures, as opposed to natural geochemical outcomes.

“ASU’s strengths lie in bringing together experts across astronomy and geology to answer just these sorts of interdisciplinary questions.”

Desch is principal investigator of an ASU-centered team that is one of 16 teams funded by a new NASA research coordination network, the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS). It will receive $6.1 million over five years to investigate the connections between exoplanets and the compositions of their host stars, and especially to focus on understanding the geochemical cycles on exoplanets with different chemical compositions.

NASA’s new network is part of its Astrobiology program. NExSS includes planetary scientists, astrophysicists and heliophysicists who will carry out research to help NASA define future space missions, determine target selection and craft observing strategies, to aid in the characterization of exoplanets and the search for life on them. It is distinct from the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the program that has previously funded astrobiology research at ASU as far back as 1998.

Under the direction of Desch, the present research team brings geophysicists, petrologists and geochemists into the fold of exoplanet research, which has so far been dominated by the astrophysicists and astronomers who discover and characterize exoplanets.

Broad collaborations across disciplines, like the one to be carried out at ASU, are relatively new in the rapidly changing field of exoplanets.

“When I started graduate school a little over 20 years ago,” Desch said, “no exoplanets were known. Today, we know of thousands, with about a dozen orbiting within their star’s habitable zones. … Twenty years from now, we could be talking about known planets with evidence of life. The pace of discovery leaves me in awe.”

Just as the Kepler mission found thousands of exoplanets that transit their host stars (pass between us and the star), NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will be launched in 2017 with the hopes of discovering thousands more among the closest stars. The James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in 2018, will measure the infrared spectrum of starlight that passes through the atmospheres of some of these transiting exoplanets, discerning what gases are present.

“Absorption of starlight by oxygen and methane could be detected by space telescopes, and will be looked for, because on Earth they are produced overwhelmingly by life,” Desch said. “But exoplanets won’t be like Earth. Stars have different chemical abundances, and their planets should, too.

“On a planet with different chemistry, it may be methane is produced naturally by water-rock interactions, or oxygen is produced abiotically. To judge whether these are valid biosignature gases, we have to understand the geochemical cycles on exoplanets with compositions different from Earth’s.”

To understand those cycles, the team will pursue a multifaceted approach combining astronomical observations, astrophysical and geochemical modeling, and geophysical and geochemical laboratory experiments. They will also conduct biological field studies to better understand how the methane cycle works on Earth, and possibly elsewhere.

The ASU team is centered in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, an academic unit in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, but also involves several faculty members from other college units including the School of Life Sciences, the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the Beyond Center. The team also includes researchers from partner institutions, including the American Museum of Natural History; the Global Science Institute in Wisconsin; Johns Hopkins University; Northern Arizona University; San Francisco State University; the University of Rochester; and the University of Washington.

Image: Professor Steve Desch is principal investigator of an ASU-centered team that is one of 16 teams funded by a new NASA research coordination network, the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science. The team will focus on understanding the geochemical cycles on exoplanets with different chemical compositions.
Photo by: Andy DeLisle

Written by Nikki Cassis


World-famous "Pillars of Creation" image will be the centerpiece of a 25th birthday party for the Hubble Space Telescope, April 24.

One of the most iconic images ever taken by the Hubble Space Telescope — dubbed "The Pillars of Creation" — is the keynote image for a celebration of the space telescope's 25th birthday at the final Earth and Space Open House of the spring semester, on Friday, April 24.

The evening's events will feature two FREE public talks by researchers at the School of Earth and Space Exploration. The first, given by Christopher Groppi, will focus on how astronomers are launching balloon-borne telescopes from Antarctica to investigate the universe.

The second talk, by Paul Scowen, is titled "Hubble Greatest Hits." Scowen, who used Hubble to help make the Pillars of Creation image, will tell the fascinating story of star and planet formation through a tour of Hubble's greatest hits.

"Join us," he says, "for an intimate look at the environment of a stellar nursery and an intriguing connection with the conditions under which our own planet may have formed, all while enjoying some of the best images the Hubble Space Telescope has taken over the past 25 years."

The free talks will be held in at the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV (ISTB 4) on ASU’s Tempe campus.

The evening's program includes:
• 7:15 pm: First 3D Planetarium Show (Marston Exploration Theater)
• 7:30 pm: Lecture on "Telescopes on Balloons in Antarctica" by Christopher Groppi (Room 240)
• 8:15 pm: Keynote Lecture on "Hubble's Greatest Hits" by Paul Scowen (Marston Exploration Theater)
• 9:15 pm: Second 3D Planetarium Show (Marston Exploration Theater)

Please note: All seating is on a first-come basis.

As usual, there will be telescope sky viewing outdoors next to the James Turrell Skyscape art installation from 8 to 10 p.m. (weather permitting). There will also be several exciting demonstrations and activities in the state-of-the-art ISTB4 Gallery of Scientific Exploration by experts in astrobiology, geology, cosmology and planetary science – as well as a free poster.

The open house can be accessed through the main entrance of ISTB 4, located on the building’s north side.

The monthly open house is sponsored by the School of Earth and Space Exploration, GeoClub, AstroDevils: ASU Astronomy Club, Icarus Rocketry, Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), the Center for Meteorite Studies (CMS) and many others.

For more information, visit or visit the school's Facebook event page. This will be the final open house of the spring semester.

Image caption: The Eagle Nebula, the subject of the famous "Pillars of Creation" image, is a region of space where stars and planets are forming. This image and other famous Hubble images help scientists understand how planetary systems such as our own came into being. (Image credit: NASA)

Writen by Robert Burnham


Nearly 460 kilometers wide, Greeley Crater on Mars has been named in honor of a pioneering planetary science researcher at Arizona State University.

Throughout his career Ronald Greeley was passionate about exploring Mars, so it’s fitting that the late Arizona State University professor’s name will grace maps of the Red Planet.

A large, ancient crater – nearly as wide as Arizona – now carries the name of Greeley Crater, in honor of the Mars science pioneer and longtime professor of planetary science.

Greeley was involved in almost every major solar system robotic mission flown since the late 1960s and advanced the study of planetary science at ASU.

The crater, which spans 457 kilometers (284 miles), lies in Noachis Terra, the geologically oldest terrain on Mars. Although the crater's exact age is not known, the smaller impact craters superimposed on it plus its preservation state all suggest an age of at least 3.8 billion years.

It is centered just east of Mars' "Greenwich meridian" and is 37 degrees south of its equator.

Kenneth Tanaka, a planetary geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff and longtime colleague of Greeley, proposed the name, noting that it was the oldest, relatively well-preserved impact crater on Mars that remained still unnamed.

Tanaka will announce the crater’s naming in his keynote talk at the 24th annual Arizona/NASA Undergraduate Research Symposium on April 17 in Tempe.  

The International Astronomical Union, the world's authority for feature names on extraterrestrial bodies, formally approved the name on April 11. IAU rules require that a person must be deceased for at least three years before any commemoration can be made; Greeley died in October 2011.

Planetary science pioneer

During his career, Ronald Greeley was involved in almost every major solar system robotic mission flown since the late 1960s. These include the Magellan mission to Venus, Galileo mission to Jupiter, Voyager 2 mission to Uranus and Neptune, and shuttle imaging radar studies of Earth.

Passionate about exploring Mars, he contributed to numerous Red Planet missions, including Mariners 6, 7 and 9; Viking; Mars Pathfinder; Mars Global Surveyor; and the Mars Exploration Rovers. He was a co-investigator for the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Mars Express mission.

Joining the ASU faculty in 1977, Greeley was a pioneer in planetary science experiments. For example, he created a vertical gun to study impact cratering processes. Another instance was the use of wind tunnels to study the behavior of wind-blown sand particles and dunes, which are important features on the surfaces of Earth, Mars, Venus, and Saturn's largest moon Titan.

To study sand movement on Venus, where the atmosphere is nearly 100 times denser than on Earth, he built a special high-pressure wind tunnel. This same tunnel was recently reconfigured for Titan's surface conditions, and researchers discovered that to move Titan's sands, winds have to be much stronger than scientists had thought.

At the time of his death, Greeley was Regents' Professor of planetary geology in the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE), an interdisciplinary school combining science and engineering studies. Greeley had a key role in creating it and he served as interim director at its inception.

First image: Almost 300 miles wide, Greeley Crater lies in the heavily impacted and ancient southern highlands of Mars. It honors Ronald Greeley, longtime ASU planetary scientist who died in 2011. (NASA)

Second image: A spacecraft view of Greeley Crater shows a heavily modified surface. After Greeley Crater formed billions of years ago by the impact of a small asteroid, later impacts and lava flows on its floor have altered and partly obliterated its appearance. This THEMIS daytime infrared mosaic uses images from an ASU-designed visible and infrared camera on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University)

Written by Robert Burnham