News and Updates


The Origins Project at Arizona State University is hosting a weekend celebration of its fifth anniversary by focusing on the future of humanity in “Transcending our Origins: Violence, Humanity and the Future,” 7 p.m., Saturday, April 5.

Tickets for the April 5 Great Debates are now available. The Great Debates will be the capstone event to a weekend full of activities for the Origins Project, said director Lawrence Krauss.

“The Origins Project will host a workshop on violence and explore the future of humanity during the weekend, and will discuss all of these issues in a public forum on Saturday evening,” Krauss said. “We also will be taking part in NPR’s Science Friday with some members of the weekend activities providing expert commentary on the show, and there will be an Origins Project fundraising dinner on Friday evening.”

“We want to capture the on-going excitement and the intellectual stimulation that have become the hallmarks of the Origins Project, covering three of the four major Origins themes in this anniversary year, complementing our Great Debate on the cosmos held in February, and revisiting some of the remarkable excitement generated in our first major Origins Symposium in April of 2009,” he added.

At 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 5, Origins will hold the first of two Great Debates in Gammage Auditorium on ASU’s Tempe campus. The first Great Debate is titled, “The Origins of Violence,” and will feature such noted scholars and writers as experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, Harvard; primatologist Richard Wrangham, Harvard; political scientist Erica Chenoweth, University of Denver; psychologist Adrian Raine, University of Pennsylvania; international relations scholar John Mueller, Ohio State University; and Sarah Mathew, assistant professor is ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change. The group will discuss the development of violence from the brain to world wars.

The second panel, which will begin approximately 8:30 p.m., is titled “The Future: From Medicine and Synthetic Biology to Machine Intelligence.” It will feature scientists and notable experts such as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, biologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, investor and former journalist Esther Dyson, distinguished scientist Eric Horvitz of Microsoft, science executive George Poste of ASU, and physician and evolutionary biologist Randy Nesse of ASU. They will talk about the future of new biomedical and robotic technologies and their impact on humanity.

Lawrence Krauss will moderate the evening.

“From exploring questions ranging from the origins of the Universe and human origins, to addressing the future of our species, the Origins Project tries to focus on topics that are not only at the forefront of scientific and scholarly inquiry, but also ones that also go straight to the heart of questions every human being asks,” Krauss said. “The fact that we have been able fill the 2,700 seat Gammage auditorium consistently with audience members willing to come to hear about science, and listen to the scientists who are doing the work testifies to the intense interest these issues hold for the public at large.”

Tickets for the Origins Project Great Debate Transcending our Origins: Violence, Humanity and the Future are available on line through and at the ASU Gammage Box Office, (480) 965-3434. Discounted student tickets are available with a student ID at the Gammage Box Office. The first 1,250 tickets are free (two per person) to persons presenting a valid ASU ID at the Gammage Box Office only.

For more information on Origins events, please go to <> , or call (480) 965-0053.

(Skip Derra)



NASA has selected five students from the Dust Devils Microgravity Team at Arizona State University to fly an experiment on the “Vomit Comet,” the endearing nickname given to an airplane that simulates zero gravity.

The airplane, a modified Boeing 727-200 owned by the Zero-G Corporation, was once used to train astronauts in the 1960s. It is now used for NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. Based out of Houston, this program gives undergraduate students in the U.S. the opportunity to propose, build and fly an experiment designed for zero gravity.

The Dust Devils are studying the microphysics of dust—specifically, the team is looking at how dust in space becomes electrically charged and clumps together to form planets. “How do planets form?” is a question scientists don’t have a full answer to, team lead Jack Lightholder said.

“We’re not developing a hypothesis that’s been tested a million times,” Lightholder said. “[The experiment] is cutting edge because we’re not really sure of the answer.” The team’s experiment, which flew with NASA in 2012, is the first of its kind to study planetary formation from dust particles, Lightholder said.

Jack Lightholder (computer science), Elizabeth Dyer (astrobiology), Zachary Priddy (computer systems engineering), Alison Gibson (aerospace engineering) and RJ Amzler (astrobiology) will fly the experiment at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston during the week of April 4-12. John Conafay (economics) is an alternate flyer. Paul Reesman (computer science) and Libby Loyd (aerospace engineering) make up the Dust Devils’ ground team. Lightholder and Gibson are ASU/NASA Space Grant interns.

The idea for the experiment came from team adviser and theoretical astrophysicist Steve Desch. Desch is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) at ASU. The team’s engineering adviser is experimental astrophysicist Chris Groppi, also a professor in SESE.

The experiment is made of 12 chambers filled with different kinds and volumes of dust. The team chose dust compositions based on material that is found in interstellar space. One chamber contains dust from the Murchison meteorite. The meteorite sample was donated by ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies.

This year the team has also mounted GoPro video cameras next to the chambers to record how the dust behaves in zero gravity. The team will only experience about 20 seconds of zero gravity at a time, so the experiment needs to be quick and reliable.

“We’re just simplifying the system like crazy,” Lightholder said. “It’s basically just one click to turn it on and off.”

Although NASA foots the $5,000-per person flight bill, the Dust Devils have to pay to build the experiment and to travel to and from Houston for flight week, a total of about $10,000. ASU/NASA Space Grant is helping to cover some project expenses. To help make ends meet, the team started an Indiegogo crowd funding campaign.

“Crowd funding is essentially you put out a pitch and you say, ‘Hey this is what we’re doing, this is what we need the money for, and here are the different perk levels,’” said team treasurer and economics major John Conafay.

For example, for a $25 donation the team will give the donor photos from the flight, a social media shout out and an ASU Dust Devils Mission Patch. For a $500 donation, the donor will get one of the GoPro Hero 3+ Silver Edition cameras used on the experiment along with the perks offered at lower price levels.

The team is hoping to raise $2,000 through its Indiegogo campaign.

The amount of time spent on the experiment is comparable to a full-time job. And all of that work is done on top of being a full-time student. But the team members are grateful for the experience.

“My stance is that the whole college experience is three parts: It’s the academics you learn in your classes, it’s networking and it’s hands-on experience, because there’s a lot you just can’t learn in a book,” Lightholder said.

To donate to the Dust Devils visit their Indiegogo at

Photo: Back Row: Dr. Christopher Groppi, Ashley Mascareno, Zachary Priddy, Robert Amzler, John Conafay, Alison Gibson

Front Row: Casner Pernice, Trey Gossard, Jack Lightholder, Elizabeth Dyer, Dr. Steve Desch

(Kristen Hwang)




Danny Jacobs, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Low Frequency Cosmology lab in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, has just been awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship (AAPF). The fellowship will fund three years of his research, including stipend and annual research costs. The start date is October 1, 2014.

Jacobs’ main focus is high redshift cosmology at low frequencies. He is a member of the Precision Array for Probing the Epoch of Reionization (PAPER) in South Africa and the Murchison Wide-field Array (MWA) in Western Australia.

“Thanks to the NSF I'll be able to finish several outstanding cosmology experiments and begin work on the sequels,” says Jacobs. “Now is an exciting time for Cosmology and with this new support ASU is taking a leading role in cutting edge experiments.”

“Jacobs is both the first award to come from ASU and also the first to intend to perform the award research at ASU. So this is a pretty big milestone for the astronomy group in the School of Earth and Space Exploration,” says Assistant Professor Judd Bowman, who oversees the Low Frequency Cosmology lab.



For the first time since the Viking Mars mission of the 1970s, which ended more than a generation ago, scientists will soon begin systematic observations of Mars from orbit at times of day around local sunrise and sunset. The instrument they will use is the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera, designed at Arizona State University.

The new approach is a result of NASA changing the orbit of its Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which carries the THEMIS camera. The spacecraft has been drifting toward the new orbit for more than a year, and a small engine burn on Feb. 11 accelerated the drift so it can finalize the orbit in November of 2015. During the transition, THEMIS will continue observations as the orbital time of day changes.

"We don't know exactly what we'll find when we get to an orbit where we see Mars just after sunrise," says Philip Christensen, designer and principal investigator for THEMIS. He is a Regents' Professor of Geological Sciences in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration on the Tempe campus. Christensen developed the post-orbit change observing plan.

THEMIS is a multi-band camera that images Mars in nine infrared (heat-sensitive) "colors" and five visible ones. It was launched on Mars Odyssey in April 2001 and reached the Red Planet in October that year. The spacecraft spent several months dipping into the Martian atmosphere to regularize its orbit, and THEMIS began science imaging in February 2002. With more than 12 years elapsed since arrival, Mars Odyssey is the longest-working Mars spacecraft of any nation.

Morning and evening on Mars

Besides revealing landscapes in sharp relief, thanks to the low sun angle, the new orbital time of day for THEMIS promises to let scientists explore frosts, ground fogs, early morning clouds and hazes, and other transient atmosphere-related features that usually vanish as the Martian day goes on.

"We know that in places, carbon dioxide frost forms overnight," says Christensen. "And then it sublimates immediately after sunrise. What would this process look like in action? How would it behave? We've never observed this kind of phenomenon directly."

He notes that the Martian atmosphere is more variable than scientists have appreciated in the past.

"We can look for seasonal differences," says Christensen. "Are fogs more common in winter or spring? Do they vary from day to day? From one part of the year to another? From year to year? We'll check it out."

In addition, THEMIS will measure surface temperatures at thousands of locations. These observations can yield insight about materials in the ground and about temperature-driven processes. These include warm-season flows of water or brine seen on some slopes, and gas-and-sand geysers fed by spring thawing of carbon dioxide ice near Mars' south pole.

"We're teaching an old spacecraft new tricks," says Odyssey project scientist Jeffrey Plaut at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "We will be in position to do something that has never been done systematically: to watch how morning fog, clouds and surface frost develop at different times of year."

After Mars Odyssey reaches its intended orbit of 6:45 a.m. and p.m. (local time) in November 2015, mission engineers expect Odyssey will have enough propellant for nine to 10 more years of operation, an important matter for ongoing Mars exploration. Besides conducting its own observations, Odyssey also serves as a crucial communications relay to Earth for the two active rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, operating on the Martian surface.

"Mars is a dynamic world," says Christensen. "And for a generation, we've not been positioned to explore this part of it so thoroughly."

Photo: ASU's Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) is taking regular temperature measurements of the ground as the orbit of NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft drifts toward a time of day that will give THEMIS views of Mars around sunrise and sunset. This will be the first systematic observations of these times of day in more than a generation. Here, THEMIS is imaging the floor of Gale Crater, using its visual wavebands to create a color view of the area where Mars rover Curiosity (too small to be imaged) is exploring for ancient habitable environments.
Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

(Robert Burnham)



Tempe Center for the Arts (TCA) and Arizona State University have worked together to create an exhibit that will investigate the relationship between popular culture, scientific inquiry, technological innovation and cultural change. Several ASU units, including the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Center for Science and the Imagination, contributed to the design of the exhibit.

In the February issue of Localrevibe magazine writer Nicole Royse discusses the exhibit and draws attention to the "science" side, including a mention of the fabulous Mars panoramas.

Read the full story here (starts on page 34)


The popular culture we love – movies, TV, literature, video games – can have an enormous impact on the way we see the world, and it feeds our passion to learn about new ideas and imagine the world differently. This is especially true for science fiction: many scientists and engineers can trace their interest in science back to a moment in their past when a fictional universe like Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired them to learn more about the world around them.

From January 17 - June 8, 2014, the Tempe Center for the Arts presents American POP! Comic Books to Science Fiction...and Beyond, an exhibition that explores the transformative effects that science fiction and popular culture have on our everyday lives and the technology that surrounds us. Displays include materials from local and national collectors, original art and limited edition pieces from some of America’s favorite pop culture icons, as well as science exhibits.

Tempe Center for the Arts (TCA) and Arizona State University have worked together to create an exhibit that will investigate the relationship between popular culture, scientific inquiry, technological innovation and cultural change. Several ASU units, including the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Center for Science and the Imagination, contributed to the design of the exhibit.

In an effort to bring some reality to all the pop culture and science fiction, the School of Earth and Space Exploration will be providing nonfiction scientific displays and all-too- real stunning images of actual science, including exhibits specific to the Moon, Mars, and meteorites.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera team, located on ASU’s Tempe campus, will be providing 24 framed lunar images, and a few larger panels. The Ronald Greeley Center for Planetary Studies will provide images from various early NASA missions including Viking and Voyager. The Mars Space Flight Facility will provide images from various missions, past and ongoing, including a panoramic landscape that will be used as a backdrop for “Marvin the Martian”, a 4 foot high 3D model that belonged to the iconic character’s creator, Chuck Jones. A replica of the ray guns that Marvin used will also be available for a photo op. The Center for Meteorite Studies will provide samples of lunar, Martian, and other meteorites to be displayed in each of these exhibits. As a part of the meteorite display, artistic and informative digital images of meteorite sections will be displayed as large banners.

As a part of this innovative exhibition, TCA also partnered with ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI). CSI filmed a series of video interviews with scientists, engineers and other creative people from ASU and beyond, tracing the influence of science fiction and popular culture on their education, their careers and their scientific and creative work. The video exhibit is online now at, and will air in the exhibit starting on January 17.

“Our mission is to bring scientists, engineers and technologists together with writers, artists and other creative thinkers to imagine our future differently,” says Ed Finn, CSI’s director. “Building these collaborations has helped us realize that there is a vibrant flow of ideas between the scientific community and the science fiction community. This exhibit is a great example of how understanding pop culture helps you better understand the culture of science and engineering, and vice versa.”

Two SESE scientists are featured in the video collection. SESE associate research professor David Williams discussed how his work on planetary geology was inspired by his childhood fascination with the Star Trek universe, complete with a question about “cold fusion,” a science fictional process that Star Trek’s Dr. Spock (Williams’ favorite fictional character) uses to stop a volcanic eruption in the 2013 film Star Trek Into Darkness. Melissa Morris, assistant director of the Center for Meteorite Studies, was also interviewed, with her interview focusing on science fiction’s ability to present optimistic and inspiring visions of the future, as well as the planet-generating spaceship featured in the film Titan A.E. Other ASU scholars featured in the collection include David Guston, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, Jeff Yarger, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Ron Broglio, associate professor in the Department of English.

A collection of Williams’ and Morris’s science fiction-related personal items will also be on display at the exhibit. Be sure to check out Williams’ Star Trek uniform from his graduate student days and a retro Star Trek Transport toy – with all the characters.

Each Friday evening from January 17 through June 8, TCA will host Sci-Fi Friday, featuring presentations on subjects ranging from robotics to game design to planetary imaging. Several SESE community members, including a student, will be presenting.
• February 7: David Williams, “Asteroids, Ion Propulsion and NASA’s Dawn Mission to Vesta and Ceres”
• February 14: Graduate student Teresa Ashcraft will present hands-on demonstrations, Internet resources and lesson plan information for teachers
• March 14: Professor Mark Robinson will discuss what scientists have learned about the Moon from recent missions and the future of lunar exploration
• April 4: Melissa Morris, “Rocks from Space”
• April 11: Meg Hufford and Amy Zink from the Ronald Greeley Center for Planetary Studies

Further details can be found at the following website:

(Nikki Cassis)




Kelin Whipple, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and a senior fellow in the Earth System Evolution Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, has been recognized with a prestigious award from the National Academy of Sciences.

Whipple, internationally recognized for his work in geomorphology, studies the interaction of climate, tectonics, and surface processes in the sculpting of the Earth's surface. His current research activities focus on the mechanics of river incision, the role of climate variability in landscape evolution, and the expression of tectonic activity in the topography of mountain belts. He has conducted extensive research in such areas as the Tibetan Plateau (China), Himalaya (Nepal and Bhutan), Andes (Peru and Bolivia), Southern Alps (New Zealand), and western North America. His work explores the possible influence of climate-driven erosion on the rate and style of deformation deep in the Earth’s crust and the utility of topographic analyses for identifying seismic hazards in remote, poorly studied regions.

During his career, Whipple’s research contributions have been internationally recognized, including receiving the Bagnold Medal from the European Geosciences Union and being elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America.

The professor's new award is the G.K. Warren Prize, presented every four years for distinguished contributions to river-related geology. Whipple is being honored for his seminal studies on the role of fluvial incision as a key process that links climate, tectonics, and landscape evolution.

Established by Emily B. Warren in memory of her father, the award honors noteworthy and distinguished accomplishment in fluvial geomorphology and closely related aspects of the geological sciences.

“Kelin’s extensive and broad quantification of how a river’s overall form reflects the way tectonic and climatic forces shape the landscape is widely recognized as being among the most influential in the field. Over the past 15 years, Kelin and his students have published about 50 papers quantifying how rivers carve through the Earth’s surface and are the key process connecting the external drivers of climate and tectonics with landscape evolution. His work shows clearly how rivers set the pace for the way that landscapes change over time,” says Arjun Heimsath, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “It is truly inspirational to team-teach classes with Kelin, co-advise PhD students with him, and to be helping shape the direction of a new school with him and our colleagues in SESE.”

Whipple and 15 others receiving NAS awards this year for their extraordinary scientific achievements will be honored in a ceremony April 27 of this year during the academy’s 151st annual meeting. 

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and -- with the National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council -- provides science, technology and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

For more information, please visit:

(Nikki Cassis)



Congratulations to Mingming Li for receiving an Outstanding Student Paper Award (OSPA) for his AGU poster last month. His poster was titled: “Three Dimensional Morphology and Dynamics of Ultra-Low Velocity Zones” and was presented in a Study of the Earth’s Deep Interior session.

Also a round of applause to Marc Neveu for an AGU poster OSPA. Marc’s poster was titled: "Ordinary Stoichiometry of Extraordinary Microbes”, and was presented in a Biogeosciences session.



World’s most powerful exoplanet camera looks skyward

After nearly a decade of development, construction, and testing, the world’s most advanced instrument for directly imaging and analyzing planets around other stars is pointing skyward and collecting light from distant worlds.

The instrument, called the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), was designed, built, and optimized for imaging faint planets next to bright stars and probing their atmospheres. It will also be a powerful tool for studying dusty, planet-forming disks around young stars. It is the most advanced such instrument to be deployed on one of the world’s biggest telescopes – the 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile.

Jennifer Patience, an astrophysicist and associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, has been working with the GPI team for almost 10 years. Her involvement began with contributions to the science case when the project was in the proposal stage, followed by a large scale effort to develop a set of ideal target stars around which to search for planets. Most recently, Patience and her students have been working with the GPI commissioning team on the initial data to help calibrate the instrument and ensure the best performance of the instrument.

Eyes to the sky

Exoplanets are extraordinarily faint and difficult to see next to a bright star. GPI can see planets a million times fainter than their parent stars. GPI detects infrared (heat) radiation from young Jupiter-like planets in wide orbits around other stars, those equivalent to the giant planets in our own Solar System not long after their formation. Every planet GPI sees can be studied in detail.

GPI, an extraordinarily complex astronomical instrument the size of a small car, carried out its first observations last November. Patience and her students worked from ASU with analysis of the initial data taken in November and December.

For GPI’s first observations, the team targeted previously known planetary systems, including the well-known Beta Pictoris system; in it GPI obtained the first-ever spectrum of the very young planet Beta Pictoris b. The team also used the instrument’s polarization mode – which can detect starlight scattered by tiny particles – to study a faint ring of dust orbiting the very young star HR4796A. With previous instruments, only the edges of this dust ring, (which may be the debris remaining from planet formation), could be seen, but with GPI astronomers can follow the entire circumference of the ring.

Although GPI was designed to look at distant planets, it can also observe objects in our Solar System. The accompanying test images of Jupiter’s moon Europa, for example, can allow scientists to map changes in the satellite’s surface composition. The images were released today at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington DC.

“The early science images from GPI are spectacular and are an indication of the discoveries to come from the planet search survey that will commence this year. The ability to both image planets and investigate their atmospheres with a spectrum from GPI is a very exciting combination,” says Patience.

In 2014, the GPI team will begin a large-scale survey, looking at 600 young stars to see what giant planets orbit them. GPI will also be available to the whole Gemini community for other projects, ranging from studies of planet-forming disks to outflows of dust from massive, dying stars. Patience is one of two co-leads for developing the 600-star target list for this upcoming planet search survey.

“My research group and I are looking forward to the upcoming planet search survey. We will use GPI to discover new planets and learn how common giant planets are around stars of different masses and stars that are encircled by dusty disks analogous to the Kuiper belt in the Solar System. Since GPI is both a camera and a spectrograph, we will be able to investigate the atmospheres of detected planets and begin to characterize these other worlds,” explains Patience.

Looking through Earth’s turbulent atmosphere, even with advanced adaptive optics, GPI will only be able to see Jupiter-sized planets. But similar technology is being proposed for future space telescopes, and instruments like GPI are paving the way for a future instrument to image Earth-like planets.

For more information on GPI visit:

Image: Comparison of Europa observed with Gemini Planet Imager in K1 band on the right and visible albedo visualization based on a composite map made from Galileo SSI and Voyager 1 and 2 data (from USGS) on the left. While GPI is not designed for ‘extended’ objects like this, its observations could help in following surface alterations on icy satellites of Jupiter or atmospheric phenomena (e.g. clouds, haze) on Saturn’s moon Titan. The GPI near-infrared color image is a combination of 3 wavelength channels.
Image credit: Processing by Marshall Perrin, Space Telescope, Science Institute and Franck Marchis SETI Institute


The ASU Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) team, led by Professor Mark Robinson, has released images of China's first Moon lander and rover.

Chang'e 3, the Chinese moon lander, arrived on the Moon on Dec. 14, touching down in a region named Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains). The lander carried a six-wheeled rover vehicle on its back known as Yutu ("Jade Rabbit" in English). Soon after landing, the rover was deployed and took its first drive.

At the time of the landing NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's orbit was far from the landing site so images of the landing were not possible. Ten days later on December 24, LRO approached the landing site, and LROC was able to acquire a series of six image pairs during the next 36 hours (19 orbits). The highest resolution image was possible when LRO was nearly overhead on December 25. At this time LRO was at an altitude of ~150 km above the site, and the pixel size was 150 cm.

In the new NASA images, the Chang'e 3 lander and Yutu rover are clearly visible in photos by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO.

Additional imagery and information related to this story are available on the LROC website:

Image: LROC NAC view of the Chang'e 3 lander (large arrow) and rover (small arrow) just before sunset on their first day of lunar exploration. LROC NAC M1142582775R, image width 576 m, north is up [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].