News and Updates


Today the White House announced the creation of a nationwide “CubeSat competition” that partners high school students with leading universities for the development and operation of small space satellites. The announcement was part of the festivities surrounding White House Astronomy Night on Oct. 19.

The CubeSat competition is being organized by Cornell University and the Museum of Science Fiction in Washington, D.C. Seven universities, including Arizona State University, will be participating partners. ASU’s participation will be led and organized by Jim Bell, director of the ASU Space Technology and Science (“NewSpace”) Initiative, and Ed Finn, director of ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination.

“The CubeSat competition provides a great opportunity for students to get direct, hands-on experience in space science, engineering and exploration,” said Bell, an ASU professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “Part of our mission is to engage the community, especially young people, in the excitement of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) topics like space exploration.”

“This contest invites a new generation of explorers, researchers and entrepreneurs to dream big,” said Finn, an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media & Engineering and the Department of English. “Space has long been a canvas for great stories and grand ambitions, from the Apollo Program to ‘Star Trek,’ and the CubeSat competition gives winners the chance to see their ideas not just realized but launched into orbit.”

In the CubeSat competition, teams of high school students nationwide will propose inexpensive (less than $10,000) CubeSat missions to test technologies or conduct small-scale science experiments in space. Those proposals will be submitted by early 2016 and judged during the spring, with winners announced in summer 2016.

The students will be encouraged, but not required, to reach out to participating universities, NASA Centers or aerospace companies for help with their proposal as they see fit.

CubeSat competition judges will work with participating universities to match up their researchers’ expertise with the best-fit high school proposals (based on geography, research or technology synergies, etc.). It is expected that the universities will develop the technology and engineering solutions needed to make the high school students’ proposals functional and fit for flight.

University researchers and high school students will interact by teleconference, videoconference and email. Some universities might bring students to campus to participate in various aspects of the design and build work. In some cases, university teams may be able to carve off one component of the CubeSat system for the students to work on and then integrate it into the larger system later in the program.

The collaborative high school-university teams will apply for free NASA CubeSat launches through its CubeSat Launch Initiative.

For Bell, the benefits of the competition are both inspirational and real. “The kinds of skills needed to plan, design, test, build and fly a spacecraft mission are directly translatable to a wide variety of careers in STEM and high-tech fields,” he said. “Employers out there want not only book-smart students for these careers, but students who have gotten their hands dirty — literally or figuratively — building real-world mechanical, electrical or even software systems.

“Projects like this provide a great opportunity for practical, pragmatic teaching moments for budding engineers and scientists, as well as great foundational skills in teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving even for students who do not go directly into careers in those fields.”


Read more

The White House announcement.

The Museum of Science Fiction announcement.

Written by Skip Derra


The Origins Project has announced the winners of its inaugural Undergraduate Research Scholarship, which funds joint research projects between Arizona State University undergraduates and their faculty mentors. A $5,000 research fund is awarded to both the student and their mentor for a total of $10,000 awarded per project.

Winners of the $10,000 research project funding include astrophysics student Michael Busch and mentor Judd Bowman; economics and biochemistry student Alexi Choueiri and mentor Jason Newbern; physics and mathematics student Aditya Dhumuntarao and mentor Maulik Parikh; anthropology and geological sciences student Alexandra Norwood and mentor Michael Smith; and biomedical engineering student Nitish Peela and mentor Mehdi Nikkhah.

“The Origins Project is providing a wonderful opportunity to support aspiring scientists with undergraduate research funding,” said Choueiri, one of the student winners. “My faculty mentor and I are very grateful and excited to pursue our research goal of elucidating the origins of the brain. I strongly believe this award will cultivate me as a scientist and a scholar. It is a privilege to have the Origins Project here at Arizona State University.”

Choueiri’s mentor, Jason Newbern, agreed. “We are extremely honored to have the opportunity to contribute to the Origins Project mission by unraveling the complex origins of neural circuitry," Newbern said. "I look forward to the fantastic mentoring opportunity made possible by this award and preparing the next generation of innovative neuroscientists.”

“The Origins Project was established at ASU in part to encourage ASU undergraduates to explore foundational questions as they pursue their studies, and to encourage new research opportunities in forefront areas of interest across the full spectrum of scholarly activity associated with origins,” said Origins Project Director Lawrence Krauss.

“What better way to support this than to encourage our best students to seek out faculty resources and to be engaged directly in exciting new research projects,” Krauss said. “I am delighted that we have been able to raise funds to support these projects and I am delighted by the quality of the students who applied with their mentors and the proposals we received. It was a difficult decision, and these five projects are truly exceptional.”

This award is one of many awards and scholarships the Origins Project has available to students, researchers, and scholars. For more information visit

Written by Michelle Iwen, Origins Project


SESE is proud to welcome Karen Pardos Olsen as the newest SESE Exploration Fellow. Karen completed her PhD in Astronomy in May 2015 at the Dark Cosmology Centre in Copenhagen with specialization in two topics: 1) AGN classification of massive z=1.5-2.5 galaxies using CHANDRA X-ray archival data and 2) Simulation of far-infrared emission lines with the method SÍGAME that she developed for that purpose.

Her main research interests focus on the Interstellar Medium (ISM) of galaxies, i.e. that gas out of which stars are formed. With galaxy simulations and sub-grid modeling, Karen is trying to uncover the crucial role that amount and properties of the ISM play for the evolution of a galaxy. She compares her results with observations of the ISM, by calculating emission lines in infrared that observers detect and comparing with existing data when available, or otherwise making predictions for future observations. In particular at high redshift, ISM conditions of star-forming galaxies are poorly constrained by observations, and Karen’s main goal is to improve on the model predictions for these galaxies.

As a SESE fellow, Karen will be working on bridging the gap between observations and modeling, mentored by Sangeeta Malhotra and Rogier Windhorst. On the modeling side, she will be improving on a method called SÍGAME which she created during her PhD. On the observational side, she is involved in observing and analyzing the line emission from the extremely lensed z=2 (HELLO) galaxy sample (PI: S. Malhotra) and writing proposals for NOEMA, JVLA and ALMA.


NASA has selected five finalists for further study during the next year as a first step in choosing one or two new robotic missions for flight opportunities as early as 2020.

One of the concepts selected for further study is from Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. The proposed mission to asteroid Psyche would reveal insights about planet-formation processes and the early days of the solar system, and would also afford the opportunity to explore, for the first time ever, a world made not of rock or ice, but of iron.

Each investigation team will receive $3 million to conduct concept design studies and analyses. After a detailed review and evaluation of the concept studies, NASA will make the final selection by September 2016 for continued development leading to launch. Any selected mission will cost approximately $500 million, not including launch vehicle funding or the cost of post-launch operations.

In November 2014, proposals for spaceflight investigations were requested for NASA’s Discovery Program, a series of relatively low-cost, focused science probes aimed at exploring the solar system. A panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers reviewed 27 submissions.

The concept selected will become the 13th mission in the agency’s Discovery program.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, hopes 13 will be her lucky number.

“Every world explored so far has a surface of ice, rock or gas. Now imagine a world made of iron and nickel. How alien it must be! But deep below Earth’s surface, unreachable to us, is a metal core resembling asteroid Psyche. A mission to this metal world would be the equivalent to a mission deep below the surface of any of the terrestrial planets to examine their cores,” said Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator for the proposed mission.

The target asteroid, 16 Psyche, resides in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Discovered in 1852, it is large (about 250 kilometers, or 155 miles, in diameter), very dense and made almost entirely of iron-nickel metal.

If selected, the Psyche spacecraft would orbit the huge metal asteroid for about 12 months, studying characteristics such as topography, gravity and magnetic field and surface features. The craft will be carrying a suite of instruments, including magnetometer, imager, gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.

The proposal includes ASU colleagues Erik Asphaug and Jim Bell, both professors in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and is in partnership with JPL and Space Systems Loral.

The other planetary missions selected to pursue concept design studies are:

• Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI)

• The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission (VERITAS)

• Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam)

• Lucy

For more information about the finalists, visit:

Photo: An artist's concept of a spacecraft studying the huge metal asteroid Psyche from orbit. NASA has selected this mission concept, proposed by a team at ASU, as a finalist for a Discovery mission.
Photo by: JPL/Corby Waste

Written by Nikki Cassis.


Arizona State University is one of the 27 organizations from across the United States selected by NASA to take the next steps in negotiating its role in the new strategic approach to more effectively engage learners of all ages on NASA science education programs and activities.

Selectee activities will support Earth science, astrophysics, planetary science and heliophysics.

In its proposal, ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration leveraged its proud history of developing and running NASA education programs and its research strengths and expertise in the space sciences.

“We at ASU are so excited to work with NASA on helping their incredible science reach more schools and more students. We’re deeply committed to reaching K-12 students with the science we work on every day, so this opportunity to work with NASA and broaden the reach to the whole country is thrilling to us,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. She will be leading ASU’s efforts.

Negotiations for specific monetary awards now will begin and final awards are expected to be made by the end of this year. Agreement awards can run up to five years, with an additional five-year option.

“With the nation’s emphasis on science and engineering, critical thinking, and project-based learning, this is the time to really deploy all the excitement and fascination that NASA missions and science have to offer. NASA’s work is a tremendous platform for reaching and inspiring the next generation,” said Elkins-Tanton.

With a portfolio of approximately 100 science missions, NASA's commitment to education places special emphasis on increasing the effectiveness, sustainability and efficient utilization of SMD science discoveries and learning experiences. Goals also include enabling STEM education, improving U.S. scientific literacy, advancing national educational goals, and leveraging science activities through partnerships.

NASA’s education programs help inspire and support students from elementary school to college level, and beyond. The agency has provided lifelong learners around the globe the information to become science and tech-literate, a key asset being the inspiration NASA missions provide.

To view a list of the 27 selected organizations, visit:



“Nobody wants little data.”

Frank Timmes would know. The data he works with is big. Really big.

Timmes is an astrophysicist and professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. In his research exploring the origins of our universe, Timmes sets data calculations in motion that use and produce terabytes upon terabytes of data.

Timmes and other ASU researchers, in disciplines ranging from health to business to the humanities, often work with data sets so large they are known simply as big data. Big data is defined by four characteristics: volume, variety, velocity and veracity.

"Variety" describes the many forms of data. Every organization, from hospitals to supermarkets to airports to schools, generates different types of data. As individuals we are also generating data in the form of social-media updates, web surfing and location data. And new forms of data are always being created.

"Velocity" is how fast data is being generated. As technology advances, we are generating data at an accelerating pace.

"Veracity" describes the accuracy and completeness of the data.

"Volume" is the amount of data, measured in bytes. One byte is the amount of data used to encode a single letter of text. When personal computers debuted in the 1970s they boasted 48 kilobytes (48,000 bytes) of memory. In 2008, Google was estimated to generate 20 petabytes of data each day. That’s 20 quadrillion (20,000,000,000,000,000) bytes, the equivalent of 400 million filing cabinets' worth of text — and that was seven years ago.

How much data counts as big data? It’s relative. The easiest way to recognize big data, Timmes said, is if it’s too big for your current machine.

“Normal data today would have been considered big data 20 years ago; 20 years from now our big data will seem miniscule,” he said.

Let them eat (big data) cake

As we grow increasingly cozy with technology, big data has crept into our lives and lexicon. Devices and computers track our clicks, location, social-media activity, health, purchases and more (so much more) and along the way generate bits (and bytes) of data.

To make use of so much data, researchers rely on high-performance computing centers such as ASU Research Computing. The facility offers 100-gigabit Internet2 access and multi-petabyte storage capacity, including large-scale in-memory analytics, as well as the staff to help researchers use it.

Scientists and researchers in all fields now have the ability to create, analyze and access data in new ways and at new scales. In some cases big data used in research is so massive that it isn’t practical or cost-effective to store the data for future use. It might be kept for a few years and then deleted.

“Is every piece of data that you can put in digital format worth storing? Oftentimes not,” Timmes said.

Instead of saving petabytes upon petabytes of data, researchers make their work repeatable by others by passing on the process of data collection and analysis.

“Don’t give me the cake. Give me the recipe and let me make the cake,” Timmes said.

The power of personalization

Like researchers, retailers are also using big data for innovation.

Michael Goul is professor and associate dean for research in ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business. He studies the application of big data in predictive analytics, such as when eBay and Amazon casually suggest additional products based on your activity and purchase history.

“People come into eBay, and they don’t realize that pretty much everyone is in an experiment,” Goul said. “They test their ideas out on people live, in the system. They’re using big data for innovation.”

Goul sees exciting potential for big data to shape the experience of personalization. He said a product recommendation is just the tip of the iceberg. A future shopping experience might allow you to virtually visit a designer showroom in Paris, for example, and try on items from the latest clothing line.

Another innovation Goul is tracking uses predictive analysis in health care. This could offer suggestions for additional testing or services based on someone’s health history and other information, for example.

“We can gain so much if we can leverage technology in ways that can personalize it,” Goul said.

An interdisciplinary defense

Tailored online interactions are enabled by vast quantities of personal data. But just because you share data with one retailer doesn’t mean you wish to share it with everyone. Recent breaches at companies ranging from Target to Ashley Madison and even our federal government illustrate how difficult it can be to keep sensitive data safe.

Jamie Winterton guides cybersecurity strategy at ASU’s Global Security Initiative (GSI) and says that our online actions are often tracked without our knowledge by third parties.

“We shed so much data as we go through life, whether through personal devices or interactions. The more little pieces that are lying around, the easier it is for someone to piece together a complete picture of you,” Winterton said.

GSI recently launched the new Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics (CDF), which draws on ASU’s interdisciplinary leadership and GSI’s position as a university-wide entity to advance new understandings of security. CDF also develops partnerships with both private industry and government to improve their collective security.

Protecting data is an endless game of leapfrog, with each new attack inviting a more sophisticated defense, which hackers quickly work to break down. Creative data defenses aren’t based in computer science alone, Winterton said. They must be interdisciplinary.

No page left undigitized

Michael Simeone also works across disciplines. He is an assistant research professor at ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research and director of the Nexus Lab for Digital Humanities. Simeone is involved in projects that range from delving into 18th-century cartography to modeling changes in economic thought leadership over the past 40 years.

Technology and big data capabilities are allowing new insights into humanities questions. In addition, the humanities bring a critical point of view to the table as society grapples with our increasingly digital identity.

“Everyone assumes that just because people are under a particular age they're tech savvy. It's just not true. Learning a particular piece of software and having an important set of critical mechanisms in your mind about how to encounter data and statistics as they relate to your everyday life, social situation, culture and history is a really important skill set to have, especially as the data scales up. The digital humanities is at a nice place to intervene in this mix,” said Simeone.

As with other disciplines, the onset of a data deluge in the humanities is calling researchers back to the drawing board to rethink traditional research methodologies.

“There are some growing pains right now. Just as the data is getting bigger, the methodologies have to be thought through responsibly. If you’re used to studying 20 books and suddenly you can study 1 million books, it posits some very clear methodological challenges,” Simeone said.

The most powerful tool we have

As more of our lives are mirrored in data sets, there is enormous potential for improving quality of life. But Goul reflects that as we generate ever more data at increasing speeds we are also increasing the speed at which we make decisions based on that data.

“Sometimes it’s good to have a little soaking time and to think, ‘Is this something I really want to do?’” he said.

We will inevitably continue to live in a world where technology is the norm and not the exception. At the end of the day, however, we are not status updates, purchase histories and steps taken; we are human beings, undigitized and in the flesh. That is why Timmes asserts that, despite our advanced technology and bytes upon bytes of data, the most powerful tool anyone has is “your brain driving your fingertips on the keyboard.”

Written by Kelsey Wharton, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.



In August, 2010, researchers using images from LRO's Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) reported the discovery of 14 cliffs known as "lobate scarps" on the Moon's surface. These features are like stair-steps in the landscape formed when crustal materials are pushed together, break and are thrust upward along a fault forming a cliff.

Thanks to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), thousands of young, lobate thrust fault scarps have been revealed. These globally distributed faults have emerged as the most common tectonic landform on the Moon. An analysis of the orientations of these small scarps yielded a surprising result: the faults created as the Moon shrinks are being influenced by an unexpected source—gravitational tidal forces from Earth.

A paper describing this research is published in the October issue of the journal Geology.

"The discovery of so many previously undetected tectonic features as our LROC high-resolution image coverage continues to grow is truly remarkable," said Mark Robinson of Arizona State University, coauthor and LROC principal investigator. "Early on in the mission we suspected that tidal forces played a role in the formation of tectonic features, but we did not have enough coverage to make any conclusive statements. Now that we have NAC images with appropriate lighting for more than half of the moon, structural patterns are starting to come into focus."

Read the full story here

Image: Thousands of young, lobate thrust fault scarps have been revealed in Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera images (LROC). Lobate scarps like the one shown here are like stair-steps in the landscape formed when crustal materials are pushed together, break and are thrust upward along a fault forming a cliff. Cooling of the still hot lunar interior is causing the Moon to shrink, but the pattern of orientations of the scarps indicate that tidal forces are contributing to the formation of the young faults.
Credits: NASA/LRO


Early-career scientists face many hurdles. Harmony Colella, a SESE Postdoctoral Research Fellow, knows all about these challenges. She and colleagues authored an article for EoS title "Helping Early-Career Researchers Succeed." It discusses programs that can help early-career researchers advance their careers. Read the full story here



Julie Mitchell, a SESE student studying Geological Sciences, is the recipient of the Amelia Earhart Fellowship, which is sponsored by Zonta International and specifically for women in aerospace/exploration graduate studies.

Mitchell’s career goal is to accelerate the establishment of a permanent human presence in space by bridging the gap between engineering and science. Permanent settlement of humans in space will strongly depend on utilization of water sources on nearby bodies. Therefore, she is investigating water sources on the moon and Mars. Since adding salt depresses water’s freezing point, active water flows on the cold Martian surface would likely be composed of brine; on the other hand, salt deposits on Mars indicate where bodies of water once stood. One of her focuses is therefore on brine and salt deposition on Mars. In addition, she is looking for potential ice deposition in shadow regions of the moon. Her efforts will help mission planners to maximize both the in-situ resources available for astronauts and the scientific value of future surface exploration efforts.

Mitchell works as university outreach volunteer, Mars Student Imaging Program mentor, science public speaker and lecturer.

The Zonta International Amelia Earhart Fellowships were established in 1938 in honor of Amelia Earhart, famed pilot and member of the Zonta Clubs of Boston and New York. The Fellowships are awarded annually to women pursuing Ph.D./doctoral degrees in aerospace-related sciences or aerospace-related engineering. The award is competed at an international level and provides $10K for one year.



Mars apparently lost much of its atmosphere early in life, according to research using data from Arizona State University instruments.

Mars was not always the arid Red Planet that we know today. Billions of years ago it was a world with watery environments — but how and why did it change?

A new analysis of the largest known deposit of carbonate minerals on Mars helps limit the range of possible answers to that question.

The Martian atmosphere currently is cold and thin — about 1 percent of Earth's — and almost entirely carbon dioxide. Yet abundant evidence in the form of meandering valley networks suggests that long ago it had flowing rivers that would require both a warmer and denser atmosphere than today. Where did that atmosphere go?

Carbon dioxide gas can be pulled out of the Martian air and buried in the ground by chemical reactions that form carbonate minerals. Once, many scientists expected to find large deposits of carbonates holding much of Mars' original atmosphere. Instead, instruments on space missions over the past 20 years have detected only small amounts of carbonates spread widely plus a few localized deposits.

The instruments searching for Martian carbonate minerals include the mineral-detecting Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter and the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. THEMIS' strength lies in measuring and mapping the physical properties of the Martian surface.

Both instruments were designed by Philip Christensen, Regents' Professor of geological sciences in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration. TES fell silent when NASA lost contact with Mars Global Surveyor in 2006, but THEMIS remains in operation today.

"We designed these instruments to investigate Martian geologic history, including its atmosphere," Christensen said. "It's rewarding to see data from all these instruments on many spacecraft coming together to produce these results."

Other instruments involved in the search include the mineral-mapping Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars and two telescopic cameras on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Big, but not big enough

By far the largest known carbonate-rich deposit on Mars covers an area at least the size of Delaware, and maybe as large as Arizona, in a location called Nili Fossae. But its quantity of carbonate minerals comes up short for what's needed to produce a thick atmosphere, according to a new paper just published online in the journal Geology.

The paper's lead author is Christopher Edwards, a former graduate student of Christensen's. He is now with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. Both TES and THEMIS contributed to the work, he said.

"The Thermal Emission Spectrometer told us how much Nili has of several kinds of minerals, especially carbonates," Edwards noted.

And, he added, "THEMIS played an essential complementary role by showing the physical nature of the rock units at Nili. Were they impact-shattered small rocks and soil? Were they fractured and cemented rocks? Or dunes? THEMIS data let us differentiate these units by composition."

Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is Edwards' co-author. She said Nili doesn't measure up to what's needed. "The biggest carbonate deposit on Mars has, at most, twice as much carbon within it as the current Mars atmosphere.

"Even if you combined all known carbon reservoirs together," she explained, "it is still nowhere near enough to sequester the thick atmosphere that has been proposed for the time when there were rivers flowing on the Martian surface."

Edwards and Ehlmann estimate that Nili's carbonate inventory, in fact, falls too short by at least a factor of 35 times. Given the level of detail in orbital surveys, the team thinks it highly unlikely that other large deposits have been overlooked.

Atmosphere going, going, gone

So where did the thick ancient atmosphere go?

Scientists are looking at two possible explanations. One is that Mars had a much denser atmosphere during its flowing-rivers period, and then lost most of it to outer space from the top of the atmosphere, rather than into minerals and rocks. NASA's Curiosity Mars rover mission has found evidence for ancient top-of-atmosphere loss, but uncertainty remains just how long ago this happened. NASA's MAVEN orbiter, examining rates of change in the outer atmosphere of Mars since late 2014, may help reduce the uncertainty.

An alternative explanation, favored by Edwards and Ehlmann, is that the original Martian atmosphere had already lost most of its carbon dioxide by the era of rivers and valleys.

"Maybe the atmosphere wasn't so thick by the time the valley networks formed," Edwards suggested. "Instead of Mars that was wet and warm, maybe it was cold and wet with an atmosphere that had already thinned."

How warm would it need to have been for the valleys to form? It wouldn't take much, Edwards said.

"In most locations, you could have had snow and ice instead of rain. You just have to nudge above the freezing point to get water to thaw and flow occasionally, and that doesn't require very much atmosphere."

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

Written by Robert Burnham