Tag Archives: School of Earth and Space Exploration


ASU scientists play key roles in new NASA mission

NASA is sending a mission to see if Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter, has conditions suitable for life, and three ASU scientists are involved with the mission’s instruments.

Three scientists in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) — Philip Christensen, Mikhail Zolotov, and Everett Shock — are involved with NASA’s newly announced robotic mission to investigate whether conditions suitable for life exist at Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The mission, scheduled for launch in the 2020s, will follow up on the results of NASA’s Galileo mission of 20 years ago. That spacecraft found Europa to be an intriguing body. Its surface is a shell of ice perhaps a few tens of miles thick, covering a salty water ocean.

The icy surface has numerous colored cracks and spots, perhaps rich in salts, where the ocean water appeared and froze. Observations from Earth orbit using the Hubble Space Telescope have also revealed that Europa erupts plumes of water vapor a hundred miles high or more.

The payload of nine science instruments will greatly increase the limited knowledge of Europa, tackling challenges such as imaging the surface in high-resolution and determining the thickness of the moon’s icy shell and the depth of its ocean.

A thermal instrument will scour Europa’s frozen surface in search of thermal anomalies.

“This is a terrific opportunity for ASU and SESE,” says Philip Christensen. A Regents’ Professor of geological sciences in SESE, he is the principal investigator for the Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS).

“The role E-THEMIS plays in the mission is to act as a heat detector,” he explains. “It will scan the surface of Europa at high resolution for warm spots.” Such locations, Christensen says, could be places where the ice shell has become thin and they are the most likely locations for plume activity.

The E-THEMIS instrument will be built at ASU using the engineers and facilities in SESE on the Tempe campus that are currently building Christensen’s OTES instrument for the OSIRIS-REx mission. ASU will do the instrument design, fabrication, assembly, test, and calibration, along with mission operations and science data processing. Ball Aerospace will develop the electronics that will be integrated into E-THEMIS.  

 “This plays perfectly into SESE’s strengths in combining science with engineering,” he says.

Everett Shock and Mikhail Zolotov, co-investigators for the MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX), will apply their geochemistry expertise to interpret the results.

“In order to assess habitability of Europa we will need to gather information about composition of surface materials and understand their relations with putative water ocean,” explains Zolotov, who is also a co-investigator on the Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) and SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA).

The MASPEX and SUDA instruments will be used to sample Europa’s thin atmosphere, including plume emissions and small particulates of minerals and ice lofted into space.

“We anticipate lots of data, but the MEANING of the data for the habitability of Europa will require additional experiments, calculations, and theoretical modeling, which are major strengths of the combination of geochemistry, biochemistry, and planetary science in SESE and at ASU,” says Shock.

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is a unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.


NASA chooses ASU for Mars 2020 mission

Arizona State University has been selected by NASA to design, deliver and oversee the Mastcam-Z imaging investigation, a pair of color panoramic zoom cameras, on the next rover mission to be launched to the surface of Mars in 2020. Jim Bell, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, will be the principal investigator overseeing the investigation.

NASA has selected the instruments that will be carried aboard the Mars 2020 mission, a roving laboratory based on the highly successful Curiosity rover. The instruments were competitively selected from 58 proposals submitted, two times the average number of proposals submitted for instrument competitions in the recent past and an indicator of the extraordinary interest in exploration of the Red Planet.

The Mars 2020 rover will be designed to seek signs of past life on Mars, to collect and store samples that could be returned to Earth in the future, and to test new technology to benefit future robotic and human exploration of Mars. The instruments onboard will help to build upon the many discoveries from the Curiosity Mars rover and the two Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) and will be the critical next step in NASA’s strategic program of exploring the Red Planet.

Bell will oversee an international science team responsible for creating and operating the cameras on NASA’s next, yet-to-be-named, Mars rover. Bell has been responsible for the science imaging systems onboard the NASA Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and is the deputy P.I. of the color cameras on the Curiosity rover.

“These cameras will be the main eyes of NASA’s next rover,” says Bell.

The imaging system ASU will deliver is a pair of multispectral, stereoscopic cameras that will be an enhanced descendant of Curiosity’s successful imaging instrument called Mastcam. Mastcam-Z will be comprised of two zoom camera heads to be mounted on the rover’s remote sensing mast. This matched pair of zoom cameras will each provide broad-band red/green/blue (RGB) color imaging, as well as narrow-band visible to short-wave near-infrared multispectral capability.

Mastcam-Z will have all of the capabilities of Curiosity’s imaging instrument, but is augmented by a 3.6:1 zoom feature capable of resolving features about 1 millimeter in size in the near field and about 3-4 centimeters in size at 100 meter distance.

“The cameras that we will build and use on Mars are based on Curiosity’s cameras but with enhanced capabilities,” explains Bell. “Specifically we will be able to use our zoom capability to allow us to play a much more significant role in rover driving and target selection.”

Mastcam-Z’s imaging will permit the science team to piece together the geologic history of the site—the stratigraphy of rock outcrops and the regolith, as well as to constrain the types of rocks present. The cameras will also document dynamic processes and events via video (such as dust devils, cloud motions, and astronomical phenomena, as well as activities related to driving, sampling, and caching), observe the atmosphere, and contribute to rover navigation and target selection for investigations by the coring/caching system, as well as other instruments.

Bell’s large international science team will include Mark Robinson, School of Earth and Space Exploration professor and principal investigator for the imaging system on board NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera. Robinson brings significant experience in planetary geology and spacecraft imaging and will be responsible for characterizing the regolith from Mastcam‐Z images and assisting with camera calibration and mission operations.

In addition, Bell intends to involve a significant number of staff, undergraduate students, and graduate students in the mission. For example, SESE Research Scientist Craig Hardgrove and Technology Support Analyst Austin Godber are slated to play leading roles in the design, testing, and operations of the Mastcam-Z investigation.

Mastcam-Z remote instrument operations will be directed from the ASU Science Operations Center (SOC), housed in the Mission Operations Center located in the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV on the ASU campus. ASU faculty, staff, and students will work closely with mission engineering leads at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“We are very excited about playing such a critical role in NASA’s next Mars rover. And we are especially excited because this rover will be the first step in NASA’s Mars rover sample return mission,” says Bell. “We are eager are to play a role in the selection of the first Martian samples for eventual return to Earth.”


Asteroids named for 2 ASU faculty members

Two Arizona State University professors can add an unusual honor to the long list of accolades they have received: An asteroid has been named after each of them. This “out-of-this-world” honor has been conferred on professors Phil Christensen and Dave Williams. The two planetary geologists, both faculty members in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, now have even more reason to be gazing at the night sky.

You know the names of our solar system’s planets, but you might not have realized that thousands of asteroids and minor planets revolving around the sun also have names.

Asteroid (10461) Dawilliams was discovered on December 6, 1978, by E. Bowell and A. Warnock at Palomar Observatory. It orbits about 2.42 astronomical units from the Earth in the Main Belt, the vast asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Despite Hollywood’s love of Earth-smashing asteroid blockbusters, Williams has no worries that “his” asteroid will make doomsday headlines.

“It’s very unlikely that it will hit Earth, as it is in a stable orbit in the Main Belt,” explains Williams.
Also honored with an asteroid named for his work is Christensen, the instrument scientist for the OSIRIS-Rex Thermal Emission Spectrometer, a mineral-scouting instrument on the OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu. He was also the principal investigator for the infrared spectrometers and imagers on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey and Mars Exploration Rovers.

The asteroid is named (90388) Philchristensen and, like Williams’, it too is a Main Belt asteroid that is relatively small – approximately 4.6 kilometers (2.8 miles) across. It was discovered November 24, 2003 by the Catalina Sky Survey. It also poses no risk of collision with Earth.

“My research has long focused on Mars,” says Christensen. “But my broader interests involve all solar system bodies, and I’ve spent the last several years working on an asteroid mission. I really appreciate this honor.”

What’s in a name?
Having a namesake in the sky is no small honor. Unlike the selling of star names over the Internet, the naming of asteroids is serious business, presided over by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), an organization of professional astronomers.

Upon its discovery, an asteroid is assigned a provisional designation by the Minor Planet Center of the IAU that involves the year of discovery, two letters and, if need be, further digits. When its orbit can be reliably predicted, the asteroid receives a permanent number and becomes eligible for naming. Proposed names must be approved by the IAU’s Committee on Small Body Nomenclature.

Although many objects end up being named after astronomers and other scientists, some discoverers have named the object after celebrities. All four Beatles have their names on asteroids, for example, and there is even one named after James Bond – Asteroid (9007) James Bond.

“I was very surprised to receive this honor from the astronomical community. Only a select few of the Dawn at Vesta participating scientists, who did exemplary work during the mission, were so honored,” said Williams, whose expertise in mapping of volcanic surfaces has been key to developing geologic maps of planetary bodies that include Mars, Io and Vesta.

Christensen and Williams share this honor with several colleagues in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. The following all have namesakes in the sky:

• Erik Asphaug, professor – Asteroid (7939) Asphaug
• Jim Bell, professor – Asteroid (8146) Jimbell
• Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Foundation Professor and School of Earth and Space Exploration director – Asteroid (8252) Elkins-Tanton
• Ronald Greeley, professor emeritus – Asteroid (30785) Greeley, and Greeley’s Haven (on Mars)
• Sumner Starrfield, Regents’ Professor – Asteroid (19208) Starrfield
• Meenakshi Wadhwa, professor – Asteroid (8356) Wadhwa

Ariel Anbar and ASU graduate student Yun Duan inspect a sample of 2.5 billion-year-old seafloor.

ASU biogeochemist among 15 top scientist-educators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hubble unveils its most colorful view of the universe

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

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

Ultraviolet light comes from the hottest, most massive, and youngest stars. By observing at these wavelengths, researchers get a direct look at which galaxies are forming stars and, just as importantly, where within those galaxies the stars are forming.

Astronomers have previously studied the Hubble Ultra Deep Field in visible and near infrared light, in a series of exposures taken from 2004 to 2009. Now, with the addition of ultraviolet light, they have combined the full range of colors available to Hubble, stretching all the way from ultraviolet to near-infrared light. The resulting image — made from 841 orbits of telescope viewing time — contains approximately 10,000 galaxies, extending back in time to within a few hundred million years of the big bang.

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

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

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

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

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