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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Lorraine Longhi)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information visit

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

(Nikki Cassis)



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

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

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

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

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

Cool waters

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

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

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

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

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

Return to Gusev?

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

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

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

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

"And we know exactly where to find them."

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

(Robert Burnham)


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

View photo gallery here



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Judy Crawford)


Seeking to better understand the composition of the lowermost part of Earth’s mantle, located nearly 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) below the surface, a team of Arizona State University researchers has developed new simulations that depict the dynamics of deep Earth.

A paper published March 30 in Nature Geoscience reports the team’s findings, which could be used to explain the complex geochemistry of lava from hotspots such as Hawaii.

Mantle convection is the driving force behind continental drift, and causes earthquakes and volcanoes on the surface. Through mantle convection, material from the lowermost part of Earth’s mantle could be carried up to the surface, which offers insight into the composition of the deep Earth. The Earth’s core is very hot (~4000 K), and rocks at the core mantle boundary are heated and expand to have a lower density. These hot rocks (also called mantle plumes) could migrate to the surface because of buoyancy.

Observations, modeling and predictions have indicated that the deepest mantle is compositionally complex and continuously churning and changing.

“The complex chemical signatures of hotspot basalts provide evidence that the composition of the lowermost part of Earth’s mantle is different from other parts," explains lead author Mingming Li, who is pursuing his doctorate in geological sciences. "The main question driving this research is how mantle plumes and different compositional components in Earth’s mantle interact with each other, and how that interaction leads to the complex chemistry of hotspot basalts. The answer to this question is very important for us to understand the nature of mantle convection.”

“Obviously, we cannot go inside of the Earth to see what is happening there," says Li. "However, the process of mantle convection should comply with fundamental physics laws, such as conservation of mass, momentum and energy. What we have done is to simulate the process of mantle convection by solving the equations which control the process of mantle convection."

It has long been suggested that the Earth’s mantle contains several different compositional reservoirs, including an ancient, more-primitive reservoir at the lowermost mantle, recycled oceanic crust and depleted background mantle. The complex geochemistry of lava found at hotspots such as Hawaii are evidence of this. The various compositional components in hotspot lava may be derived from these different mantle reservoirs. The components could become embedded in and carried to the surface by mantle plumes, but it is unclear how individual plumes could successively sample each of these reservoirs.

Joined by his adviser Allen McNamara, geodynamicist and associate professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, and seismologist and SESE professor Ed Garnero, Li and his collaborators’ numerical experiments show that plumes can indeed carry a combination of different materials from several reservoirs.

According to the simulations, some subducted oceanic crust is entrained directly into mantle plumes, but a significant fraction of the crust – up to 10 percent – enters the more primitive reservoirs. As a result, mantle plumes entrain a variable combination of relatively young oceanic crust directly from the subducting slab, older oceanic crust that has been stirred with ancient, more primitive material and background, depleted mantle. Cycling of oceanic crust through mantle reservoirs can therefore explain observations of different recycled oceanic crustal ages, and explain the chemical complexity of hotspot lavas.

“Our calculations take a long time – more than one month for one calculation – but the results are worth it,” says Li.

Watch video simulation here:

(Nikki Cassis)



What do engineering and theater have in common? They share a focus on performance – the performance of materials, technologies, processes and systems, argues Lance Gharavi, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre, in a Future Tense article for Slate magazine.

Gharavi collaborated with Jake Pinholster, director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, and Srikanth Saripalli, a roboticist in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, to create "You n.0," a performance for ASU’s Emerge: The Carnival of the Future, which took place in Downtown Phoenix on March 7.

"You n.0," in Gharavi’s words, is a “series of performed metaphors that address the past, present and future of human/robot relations.” It features Baxter, a cutting-edge industrial robot created by Rethink Robotics, interacting with a cast of aerialists and clowns, and a behind-the-scenes team of technical wizards.

To design the performance, the team started with the question “What can this robot do?" According to Gharavi, “This is almost never an easy question to answer for new technologies, in part because, though capabilities are not unlimited, neither are they certain. One doesn’t so much discover capabilities as produce them. Or rather, one does both. This often involves transforming the technology itself, as well as the processes and means by which you engage the technology. And this is significantly what research in engineering means. It is largely the same in performance.”

To learn more about "You n.0," including how to control a robot with an iPad and the surprising difficulty of teaching Baxter to pop and lock, read the full article at Future Tense. To learn more about Emerge, visit

Future Tense is a collaboration among ASU, the New America Foundation and Slate magazine that explores how emerging technologies affect policy and society.

(Joey Eschrich)



Last week, several Arizona State University faculty, researchers and students made the journey to The Woodlands, Tex. to present at the 45th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) March 17-21, 2014. ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration contributed to the conference as presenters, discussion leaders, and poster exhibitors.

This five-day conference brings together nearly 2000 international specialists in petrology, geochemistry, geophysics, geology, and astronomy to present the latest results of research in planetary science. LPSC is the premiere conference for lunar and planetary scientists, and has been a significant focal point for planetary science research since its beginning in 1970, when it was known as the Apollo 11 Lunar Science Conference.

The meeting provides an invaluable opportunity for students, not only to present their own research, but also to hear and see firsthand the latest-breaking results from other researchers in their field.

Marc Neveu, a graduate student, won a Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) Career Development Award. The award is given to graduate students who submit a first-author abstract to the conference.

“I was told by the organizers that a dozen or so awards were given among 150 applicants. It's exciting, especially since the awardees' names got called out during a lecture by moon astronaut Dave Scott,” says Neveu, whose paper focused on the rocky core of Ceres, an icy world in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Graduate student Karen Rieck found the conference informative and rewarding. This was her fifth year attending. She presented a talk at the GENESIS team meeting and presented a poster. Both focused on internally standardized measurements of solar wind sodium and potassium in Genesis diamond-like carbon collectors. She also found the annual ANSMET (Antarctic Search for Meteorites) slide show particularly enjoyable.

“Every year it captures the humorous side of meteorite hunting in an otherwise hostile environment,” explains Rieck.

In lunar news, Professor Mark Robinson, who oversees the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, and his team made a strong showing at the conference, especially in the special session on “New Perspectives of the Moon: Enabling Future Lunar Missions”.

“The combined LRO and LROC results once again show that the Moon is a key exploration and science target and should be a high priority for NASA human and robotic exploration,” says Robinson. “The gateway to our Solar System lies just 250,000 miles distant; let’s get going!”

Red Planet research was also discussed by several SESE researchers.

Associate Research Professor Steve Ruff gave a talk on new evidence for an ancient ephemeral lake in Mars’ Gusev Crater. He is using data from the Mini-TES instrument on the Spirit rover and is finding evidence that carbonate rocks (possibly formed in a lake) are more extensive throughout Gusev Crater than originally thought. SESE Exploration Postdoctoral Fellow Lauren Edgar presented a talk titled “A Fluvial Sandbody on Mars: Reconstruction of the Shaler Outcrop, Gale Crater, Mars”. She is studying Mastcam images from Curiosity of an outcrop named Shaler to identify flow directions of ancient fluvial systems. According to Craig Hardgrove, a postdoctoral research associate in SESE and official LPSC microblogger, these were two of the top ASU Mars-related presentations.

“LPSC is THE important meeting in planetary science, and ASU was hugely represented and present there,” said Jim Tyburczy, interim director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “With 61 presenters identifying themselves as ASU, we had one of the biggest contingents. Many ASU students were asked to give talks this year, which shows that SESE had a significant research to present at the conference.”

Photo by Karen Rieck

(Nikki Cassis)


What’s the best way to make music with drones? According to David Rothenberg, an experimental musician, professor of philosophy and music, and visiting artist for Arizona State University’s Emerge 2014: The Carnival of the Future, let them give voice to their own secrets and struggles.

“I couldn’t get away from the idea of remote-controlled killing machines dispatched to war zones to eliminate enemies we are too frightened to confront in person,” writes Rothenberg in a Future Tense article for Slate. “I know, these killings are supposed to be effective and precise, but there is something genuinely creepy about the process. So I decided that in my piece the drones would be talking – confessing to their crimes. Of course, I know they are only following orders.”

In the article, Rothenberg discusses the process of creating his “Drone Confidential” piece for Emerge, focusing primarily on the debate among members of the project team about whether to have humans or computer programs control the drones’ flight paths during the performance. Rothenberg created the piece in collaboration with Srikanth Saripalli, a roboticist at ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Did human pilots win the day, or is Arizona's best drone pilot a computer? And what does it mean to make art with robots? To find out more, read the full article at Future Tense. To learn more about Emerge, visit

Future Tense is a collaboration among ASU, the New America Foundation and Slate magazine that explores how emerging technologies affect policy and society.

Photo:  David Rothenberg jamming with a drone at Arizona State University's Emerge 2014: The Carnival of the Future.
Photo by: Elite Henderson

(Joey Eschrich)


One of the latest stunning mosaics from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera team

Today, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), run by the Arizona State University-based team under Professor Mark Robinson, released what very well may be the largest image mosaic available on the web. This map offers a complete picture of the Moon’s northern polar region in stunning detail.

On December 11, 2011, after two and a half years in a near-circular polar orbit, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) entered an elliptical polar orbit, with a periapsis (point where the LRO is closest to the surface) near the south pole, and the apoapsis (point where LRO is furthest from the surface) near the north pole of the Moon. The increased altitude over the northern hemisphere enables the two Narrow Angle Cameras (NACs) and Wide Angle Camera (WAC) to capture more terrain in each image acquired in the northern hemisphere.

The resulting LROC northern polar mosaic (LNPM) is comprised of 10,581 NAC images, collected over four years, and covers the latitude range of 0° to 60° N.

In the fall of 2010 the LROC team produced its first mosaic of the Moon’s northern polar region, but it doesn’t even compare to this new mosaic with its 50x higher resolution and over 680 gigapixels of valid image data covering a region of the Moon slightly larger than the combined area of Alaska and Texas – at a resolution of 2 meters per pixel.

To create the mosaic, each LROC NAC image was map projected on a 30 m/pixel Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) derived Digital Terrain Model (DTM) using a software package (written by the United States Geological Survey) called Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers (ISIS).

The LNPM was assembled from individual “collar” mosaics. Each collar mosaic was acquired by imaging the same latitude once every two-hour orbit for a month during which time the rotation of the Moon steadily brought every longitude into view. Each collar mosaic has very similar lighting from start to end and covers 1° to 3° of latitude.

The mosaic was originally assembled as 841 large tiles due to the sheer volume of data. If the mosaic was processed as a single file it would have been approximately 3.3 terabytes in size. Part of the large size is due to the incredible dynamic range of the NACs. The raw images are recorded as 12-bit data (4096 grey levels) then processed to normalized reflectance (a quantitative measure of the percentage of light reflected from each spot on the ground). To preserve the subtle shading gradations of the raw images during processing the NAC images are stored as 32-bit floating-point values (millions of grey levels). The 32-bit values are four times the disk size of the finalized 8-bit (255 grey levels) representation most computers use to display grayscale images. The conversion process from 32-bit to 8-bit pixels results in saturation (group of pixels all with the maximum value of 255) in the brightest areas.

Even with the conversion, the compressed JPEG images that make up the final product take up almost a terabyte of disk space.

In total the massive mosaic required 17,641,035 small tiles to produce the final product.

“The LNPM is another example of LRO observations paving the way for science discoveries and future missions of exploration. Creation of this giant mosaic took four years and a huge team effort across the LRO project. We now have a nearly uniform map to unravel key science questions and find the best landing spots for future exploration,” says Robinson, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Read the full post on the LROC site here

Explore the gigapan here

(Nikki Cassis)

Caption 1 (top image): Printed at 300 dpi (a high-quality printing resolution that requires you to peer very closely to distinguish pixels), the LNPM would be larger than a football field.

Caption 2 (bottom image): Spectacular LROC Northern Polar Mosaic (LNPM) allows exploration from 60°N up to the pole at the astounding pixel scale of 2 meters [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].