News and Updates


Did dinosaurs roam the Grand Canyon?

Well, the answer depends on who you talk to. And how old they believe the majestic canyon to be.

While the Grand Canyon’s magnificence and its recognition as one of the most famous geological landscapes in the world inspired many geologists to study its formation, there is still much to learn about it.

While it might be fun to imagine scientists and researchers arguing about whether or giant reptiles were hanging around Arizona’s most famous landmark 65 million years ago, this isn’t a debate about dinosaur territories. It’s a question of when the deep walls of the Grand Canyon were eroded by the snaking Colorado River.

Recently two different groups published papers that suggested the Grand Canyon started forming more than 6 million years ago. One group said the canyon had eroded to nearly its current form by 70 million years ago and another said it started eroding 17 million years ago. These papers have caused several different groups to take a closer look at both old and new data sets – including researchers from Arizona State University.

“We are confident the western canyon is younger than 6 million years and is certainly younger than 18 million years,” says Andy Darling, a graduate student in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. The research is published online in the June 10 issue of the journal Geosphere.

The problem with the assertion is that studying the age of the Grand Canyon isn’t easy.

Measuring time can be tricky when everything you’re studying is eroding away. And the whole region has been eroding for a long time, so not much is left of the landscape that was there when the Grand Canyon started forming. Yet, most people think the Grand Canyon is young – around 6 million years old based on what is preserved.

While many different detective methods exist to gauge the canyon’s age, Darling and his advisor, Kelin Whipple, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, decided to see if the shape of the landscape could be used to infer the timing of canyon incision in a different way.

They analyzed the shape of the land and an understanding about how landforms change plus comparisons to other thoroughly dated features in the region – like the Grand Wash Fault and the cliff-band along it.

As Darling put together computer analyses of the landscape, he and Whipple noticed the cliffs that make the edge of the Colorado Plateau (the Grand Wash Cliffs) look different than the cliffs that make the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon cliffs are steeper. Looking more closely, the tributary streams that pour into the Colorado River are also steeper than those in the Grand Wash Cliffs.

Many other researchers have shown the fault that formed the Grand Wash Cliffs experienced most of its movement in a long period of fault slip between 18 and 12 million years ago. The west side of the fault has slipped downward a few kilometers, making a hole for sediment eroding from the Grand Wash Cliffs to pile into. As erosion occurs, steep cliffs become more gradual slopes and rivers flatten out over time. But the western Grand Canyon has steeper cliffs and steeper tributary rivers than those along the Grand Wash Cliffs.

“We think this means that the western Grand Canyon is younger and started eroding more recently and at a higher rate than the area of the Grand Wash Cliffs,” Darling explained. In both landscapes, the amount of erosion measured vertically is about the same: but the time taken to do that erosion is different and hence the erosion rates are different.

Using this inference, they evaluated the three previous hypotheses for the age of incision of Western Grand Canyon: 70 million years ago, 17 million years ago or about 6 million years ago.

“Since the canyon seems to be younger than the fault slip, only the most recent 6 million year old incision idea is supported by the topographic and erosion rate data,” Darling said.

Which, if Darling is correct, means we have an answer to our question: “There’s no way dinosaurs overlapped with what we call the Grand Canyon.”

Written by Nikki Cassis

Image by: Rich Rudow


Tracking electrical signals allows researchers to piece together inner-Earth structures and magma flow

Results from new geophysical experiments led by a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego are helping scientists understand the complex forces unfolding tens of miles below the planet’s surface.

To understand such inner-Earth dynamics, Scripps experimental petrologist Anne Pommier and her colleagues track and measure electrical currents as they travel through rocks and magma. The strength of electrical currents depends strongly on the presence of fluids or melt (magma), and provides important clues about what’s happening as Earth’s tectonic plates shift at the planet’s surface, as well as deeper processes in the mantle within layers known as the lithosphere and asthenosphere.

As described in the June 11 issue of the journal Nature, Pommier and her colleagues conducted innovative two-step experiments that mimic the structure of the interior of the planet. They used deformed partially molten rocks developed by coauthors at the University of Minnesota in high-pressure torsion experiments conducted at temperatures up to 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,372 degrees Fahrenheit) at Arizona State University.

By measuring the electrical properties of these materials at high pressure and temperature conditions in different directions in the samples, the researchers were able to produce an accurate simulation of conditions and dynamics in the upper mantle.

“The main result of this study is that we now understand a bit better of what’s going on between the lithospheric plates and the underlying mantle in the context of when the plates move very fast, producing a lot of localized deformation,” said Pommier, a researcher at with the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Scripps.

Pommier was a postdoc at ASU for part of the study then became a UCSD faculty at the end of the study during paper writing process. The experimental work was performed at ASU in the Multi Anvil High Pressure Facility.

In addition to deciphering processes in the upper mantle, the results can lead to a better understanding of other planetary processes, including how volcanoes function and where magma reaches the earth’s surface.

“In the lab we can interpret (electrical) conductivity measurements in terms of how much magma is there, its temperature, storage conditions, and composition,” said Pommier. “This is very important to predict how magma is stored in the earth and how it migrates from the mantle to the surface of the planet to feed volcanoes and mid-ocean ridges. It also helps us understand what the earth is made of in certain locations around the world, as well as the evolution of geological processes that shape the planet’s surface.”
The results were used to develop new models of electrical conductivity, which were then compared with field data (some collected by Scripps researchers) at locations such as below the East Pacific Rise and the Cocos Plate.

“It’s important to understand how the asthenosphere works if we want to understand how the entire planet works,” said Pommier. “The asthenosphere directly underlies the tectonic plates; thus, if we better understand how it works we can place important constraints on the dynamics at the scale of the planet.”

Coauthor Jim Tyburczy, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, says this work “is an example of the extraordinary interdisciplinary work performed at ASU – scientists from SESE, Chemistry, Physics, and Materials Science all use this facility.”

Coauthors of the study included Kurt Leinenweber, Edward Garnero, and James Tyburczy of Arizona State University; David Kohlstedt and Chao Qi of the University of Minnesota; and Stephen Mackwell of the Universities Space Research Association.

The study was supported by the National Science Foundation through Cooperative Studies Of The Earth’s Deep Interior and the Consortium for Materials Properties Research in Earth Sciences (COMPRES).

Written by Mario Aguilera


NSF is celebrating the International Year of Light with weekly images and information about NSF-funded light-based research. Its June 5 post centers on the 3D laser map ‘illuminates’ that earthquake faults. ASU's Ramon Arrowsmith contributed to this.

A team of NSF-funded scientists from the United States, Mexico and China used laser-based LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology to obtain some of the most comprehensive before-and-after pictures of an earthquake zone, using data from the magnitude 7.2 event that struck near Mexicali, Mexico, in April 2010.

The Mexican government had mapped the area with LIDAR prior to the earthquake in 2006.

When the earthquake occurred, Michael Oskin, from the University of California Davis, and Ramon Arrowsmith, at Arizona State University, received NSF rapid-response funding to carry out an immediate aerial survey to compare the results.

Read the full post here

Image credit Michael Oskin et al.,


Michael Pagano, a postdoctoral research fellow at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, recently wrote an article for Slate titled, "Seeing Stars. He talks about all the wonderfully weird planets out there that probably don't harbor life - and why they are exciting to him. This comes on the heels of recent paper published in the Astrophysical Journal that ruled out the possibility of star Tau Ceti supporting life.

Photo illustration courtesy PHL/UPR Arecibo via Wikimedia Commons



Seeing Stars

Comicons are known for elaborately costumed guests, celebrity photo ops, specialty vendors and gaming fun.

It turns out they are also a great forum for getting research data into the community and generating scientific dialogue.

In recent years, Phoenix Comicon – one of the biggest pop culture events in the Southwest – has expanded its offerings by including an array of science programming, which is proving quite popular.

Arizona State University researchers featured heavily in the programming at the latest Phoenix Comicon, held May 28-31.

Sitting on panels that invited public engagement, they tackled a wide range of topics, such as “How to Become a Mad Scientist” and “Everybody Panic! Or Don’t…The Science of Epidemics.”

The man behind the panels is School of Earth and Space Exploration senior instructional designer Lev Horodyskyj, who has been organizing the science programming track at Phoenix Comicon for the last two years.

Horodyskyj aims for a good mix of pop-culture panels and more esoteric ones, but all use science as their springboard.

“I have a group of volunteers who assist me, and we distill the topics into the panel sequence, usually more strongly mixed towards pop culture,” he explained. “My preference for panel composition is diverse faces and diverse fields. For example, I mixed entomologists and physicists for the ‘Science of Ant Man’ panel. I find that this kind of organization benefits the panelists in forming connections that could help them professionally and also benefits the audience in seeing a diversity of science on one panel.”

Relating panels to pop-culture topics also makes the science digestible for a large, mixed audience while giving researchers a chance to hone their talent for effectively relaying scientific information to the masses.

Anne Stone, an anthropological geneticist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, discussed ancient DNA – including its longevity, extraction techniques and what samples work best – as part of the “Jurassic World” panel.

“It was a really fun experience, and we got great questions from the crowd,” said Stone, who estimated her audience at around 230 people.

Sitting on the same panel was School of Life Sciences postdoctoral research associate Marc Tollis. The evolutionary biologist who specializes in reptiles and amphibians addressed the genomics of dinosaurs, starting with where the genomics field was in 1990, when “Jurassic Park” was published, and talking through how dinosaur genomes could be reconstructed based on what is known about bird and crocodile genomes today.

Tollis said, “Like the audience members, I am a fan, so I tried to respect the source material and not make the session into a ‘what’s wrong with Jurassic Park’ lecture. I wanted to show an audience that being a scientist doesn’t have to make you a cynical naysayer whose job it is to poke holes in a story or argument.”

The cycle will continue next January, when Horodyskyj plans to send out his yearly email to interested researchers asking for topic suggestions for Phoenix Comicon 2016. Then, he and his team will go to work building out panels, and the fun – and exchange of information – will begin again.

*The School of Earth and Space Exploration, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the School of Life Sciences are academic units in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Image: ASU researcher Steve Semken (right) speaks during a Phoenix Comicon panel about the science behind the “Jurassic Park” franchise.
Photo by: Allen Holder; courtesy of Phoenix Comicon

Written by Rebecca Howe



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.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Written by Robert Burnham and Nikki Cassis



In a masterful merger of engineering, physics and biology, researchers have developed a briefcase-size device that can continuously detect trace bacterial levels in the ocean, quantify microbes in the soil, detect pathogens in our food, and more

Until recently, it took hours – sometimes days – to analyze biological samples after they were frozen in the field and brought back to the laboratory. But now there is a faster, cheaper and smaller way for researchers to bring gold-standard analysis to the field.

A team of researchers from Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration has combined their sensors, biotechnology, and instrumentation expertise to develop a portable, autonomous device that analyzes trace elements.

The highly miniaturized microbial analysis machine, called the ddPCR Bioanalytical Field Instrument, allows researchers to do things such as detect microbes in water, soil and the upper atmosphere.

The machine, which was recently highlighted in a Nature Methods article, is portable, exceptionally low-power, robust enough for long-term field deployment, doesn't require cleaning, and is easy to deploy and operate.

Developed by a team led by experimental physicist Cody Youngbull, assistant research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the technology was originally intended for deployment on an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) platform as part of a project to map the dynamic microbial diversity in the world’s oceans.

After four years of development and millions of dollars from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the instrument is now operational. It is being used at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project to detect microbial contaminants in water more rapidly, with better accuracy and lower limits of detection.

The device employs emulsion droplet technology, which means that the aqueous sample comes into the instrument and is coated in oil thus keeping it from ever contacting the internal components. Once samples are loaded, reagents are mixed and processed and analyzed in perfect isolation. The data is then quantified directly in the field for immediate feedback. The small droplets enable the device to produce millions of copies of any specified DNA sequence in minutes.

With the emergent capability to perform this sort of analysis on an autonomous underwater vehicle, the device is quite adaptable to the needs of the researcher and has great potential for monitoring other locations in the field, including the built environment.

According to Youngbull, while it does have health applications since it is able to quantify pathogens, he doesn’t see it as a medical diagnostic tool.

“It’s designed for exploration,” he says. “Being able to detect trace components, single molecules, autonomously and reliably, without the need for sample return or hardware consumables in a really tiny, low-power package are what our machine is all about.”

Although there may be limited medical diagnostic applications, Youngbull envisions use of the device in homeland security, mass transit, public spaces, hospitals, schools, food production, and combat theater analytics.

Autonomous, digital droplet PCR is useful for many aspects of science. The device might even one day be integrated into a rover, lander or orbiter to seek out extant DNA in the water on Mars, the oceans of Europa, the ice plumes of Enceladus or wherever scientist-explorers one day hope to discover and quantify nucleic acid sequences.

Photo courtesy Cody Youngbull

Written by Nikki Cassis


An ASU graduate student in the School of Earth and Space Exploration has received a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF) for research work in the area of Earth Science. A total of 391 applications for Earth Science were received, with 64 selected for award (~16%).

The fellowship, given to support outstanding students pursuing graduate degrees in basic and applied research in Earth and space sciences, was awarded Tiantian Xiang. She is pursuing a doctorate in Civil/Environmental/Sustainable Engineering.

She is the only winner from the state of Arizona in the Earth Science category, which highlights the strong Earth Science research program on the campus.

The award is $30,000 per annum, including $24,000 student stipend and an allowance of up to $6,000, consisting of $3,000 for student expenses and $3,000 for university expenses.

Xiang will explore land surface patterns at regional scales and assess their impact on land-atmospheric interactions through numerical modeling and spatial analysis of remote sensing products.

The modeling experiments will provide a better understanding of the North American Monsoon region over the southwest US and northern Mexico, as well as insights that can be directly applied to hydrologic and numerical weather predictions.

“This is an exciting project since we are looking into a very complex system and trying to find patterns using a state-of-art modeling tool,” she says. “I feel really honored and excited about this opportunity, and will keep working with my advisor and Dr. Enrique Vivoni and collaborator Dr. David Gochis from the National Center for Atmospheric Research.”

The fellowship program supports continued training of a highly qualified workforce in disciplines required to achieve NASA’s scientific goals.

Written by Nikki Cassis




The next big thing in space research is small.

Small, agile companies and small, inexpensive devices are changing how we explore the universe. Arizona State University researchers are working with both.

Most people have probably heard of such companies as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. The term “NewSpace” is often used to describe them. But what does that word mean?

“It’s commercial entities that are building, designing, operating, thinking about space-related projects and applications, but it’s not always the usual players – the Boeings and the Lockheeds,” said Jim Bell, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) and director of the NewSpace Initiative. “It’s usually smaller, more nimble, more entrepreneurial kinds of companies.”

The field is growing rapidly. ASU’s NewSpace Initiative is tracking nearly 900 companies that have entered the industry, up from around 500 just a year ago. These include everything from small start-ups working on technology projects out of someone’s garage to companies with thousands of employees designing and building new rockets.

University-industry collaboration: The final frontier

Until recently, space exploration has typically involved relationships between government and industry or between government and academia. The relationship between academia and industry has traditionally been weak.

ASU’s Space Technology and Science (or “NewSpace”) Initiative is leading a new integration of academic and commercial space enterprises using ASU’s core strengths in space science, engineering and education.

One challenge is that academia and industry typically define success differently. For scientists and faculty, the goal is usually knowledge and training for students. For industry, the goal is usually boosting the bottom line. Matching these two worldviews is not always easy to do, but it’s what guides the initiative’s philosophy.

“We’re never going to go to a company and ask them for money,” Bell said. “We’re going to go to a company and say: ‘Here’s what we do, here’s what you do, here’s how we can work together, here’s the money we can go after together.’ ”

ASU’s extensive experience in space science and exploration is an asset to companies working in this area. For example, ASU is home to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera and the Center for Meteorite Studies. The university is also a key participant in NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter, the Curiosity and Opportunity rover missions to Mars, and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission.

ASU researchers have forged a number of smaller relationships with space companies for their own projects over the years. Scott Smas, the initiative’s program manager, is working to identify and leverage all of ASU’s space-related teams and their connections into something bigger for both the university and the industry.

“An example is an electrical engineering faculty that has built up a relationship with a space-related company,” Smas said. “We want to expose that whole group and the company to SESE, or to chemistry and biochemistry, and enable them to collaboratively submit bigger proposals than just a small subcontract.”

More than 150 ASU faculty members have some involvement with the space industry. Over the past two fiscal years, these relationships translated into $69 million in research funding through 211 awards. About 60 percent of those awards came through SESE and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. But the rest came through perhaps less expected units, such as the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, the Biodesign Institute, and the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Ultimately the initiative’s goal is to expand into an institute that ties all of these interdisciplinary avenues of space research together across the university. The institute could support a wide range of space-related academic programs, courses and degree programs, and offer robust internship programs that allow students to get valuable experience before graduation and give companies a chance to participate in cutting-edge research while training potential future employees. To that end, ASU recently became an associate member of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the trade association for the NewSpace industry.

“One thing these NewSpace companies want is our best graduates. They all want interns and employees in the future,” Bell said. “We can do that, and we do that well, but so does Stanford and MIT and all these other places. We distinguish ourselves with our experience – space mission experience, robotics, instrumentation, science, engineering and all the CubeSat stuff that’s going on across campus now.”

CubeSat revolution

CubeSats are small satellites up to the size of a shoebox that scientists and engineers started experimenting with in the early 2000s. Their small, lightweight, modular design allows them to hitch rides as secondary payloads on rockets launching larger satellites and remain in orbit to perform their tasks afterward. This makes them relatively cheap and easy for researchers at universities or small companies to build for a variety of purposes.

The CubeSat standard emerged from early experiments at ASU and Stanford with nano satellites (these weighing less than 10 kg). The industry around them is experiencing a re-emergence in the U.S. and is particularly strong in Japan and Europe.

Tech companies ranging from small start-ups to Google are looking at a variety of business applications for CubeSats. For example, a single CubeSat or small group of them could be equipped with cameras and set to cover a city like Phoenix. They could be used to monitor traffic in certain areas to help urban planners, or to monitor a business parking lot or that of a competitor to estimate customer activity. CubeSats can also monitor weather, facilitate communications, perform microgravity experiments and more.

“Every field goes through its golden era,” said Jekan Thanga, an assistant professor in SESE who helps organize the Cubes & Coffee: CubeSat Coffee Hour on ASU’s Tempe campus. “The big space sector had its golden era in the 1960s, and that culminated in the Apollo landings. So this is now its re-emergence.”

With space agencies and launch providers now investing in their potential, CubeSats are experiencing exponential growth in terms of projects and launch opportunities. ASU is taking an active role in the field. Faculty and staff at SESE and affiliated with the NewSpace Initiative are working on rebuilding the university’s radio ground station. Once complete, this will give ASU the full range of in-house space operations capabilities – from building a CubeSat to communicating with it in orbit.

“That’s possible right now by only a handful of universities and organizations – maybe less than 15,” said Thanga. “That’s our longer-term vision: building, launching and operating our own space missions.”

Thanga and SESE professor Erik Asphaug are working on a mission set to launch in 2016 that exemplifies ASU’s space research capabilities. Their CubeSat will carry pieces of meteorites into Earth orbit in an attempt to re-create the surface conditions on asteroids millions of miles away. This will enable them to re-create an environment for scientific study that would be too costly to visit for most researchers. The research will be relevant to the kinds of missions that NASA and NewSpace companies are considering, and it will provide valuable training for students.

“It enables us to give students a real flight project that is entirely owned by ASU, that gives them the skills so that when, say, five years from now we launch a 6U [large CubeSat] asteroid orbiter, they know what this is,” said Asphaug. “It’s not like this crazy, far-fetched thing – it’s just the next thing.”

Small cost, big opportunity

For Craig Hardgrove, an ASU postdoctoral research associate and director of research at the NewSpace Initiative, one of the most exciting things happening in the industry today is the birth of low-cost planetary exploration.

“I think a lot of doors open when you get the cost down to the prices we’re talking about,” he said. “We’d really like to get more faculty and staff working with commercial space partners.”

Using his background in planetary science, Hardgrove helps catalog ASU’s diverse space research community and matches faculty and staff with NewSpace companies for potential collaborations. The missions they pursue are much cheaper than typical space missions, which can range from hundreds of millions of dollars to more than $2.5 billion for something like NASA’s Curiosity rover.

“We’re proposing a mission for $5.5 million on a shoebox-sized spacecraft,” Hardgrove said of a recent proposal he submitted with commercial partners.

As an early-career scientist, Hardgrove is especially enthusiastic about the opportunities that NewSpace is opening up.

“I’m a post-doc and just got my PhD three or four years ago, so it was amazing to have an opportunity to propose a mission like this. Regardless of whether or not we win, I got some really great experience,” he said.

Thanga added: “We’re going to see master’s students and even undergraduate teams launch CubeSats and operate them and incorporate that as part of their educational experience before graduating.”

Students who want to learn more about the NewSpace industry may be interested in the following courses:

• Commercial Opportunities in Space (SES 494/598)
• Policy Dimensions of Space Exploration (HSD 598)
• Interplanetary CubeSat Design (SES 598/MAE 598)

Image: ASU's diverse space research community was supported by $69 million in funding across 211 awards from fiscal years 2012-2014.
Photo by: ASU NewSpace Initiative

Written by Nate McIntyre, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development




Many of us at one point or another have found ourselves pondering our place in the universe, asking “are we alone?”

To hybrid scientist-teacher Ariel Anbar, it’s a question that drives his workday – and thanks to his innovative teaching efforts, he has inspired many thousands of ASU students to think about habitability in new ways.

Anbar’s research focuses on Earth’s past and future as a habitable planet, and the prospects for life beyond Earth.

His pioneering research – especially about the chemical evolution of the environment – and innovative efforts in online education have garnered him the Gary S. Krahenbuhl Difference Maker Award.

The annual award, presented by ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, celebrates a faculty member who personifies the spirit of difference-making demonstrated by Krahenbuhl, a former dean of the college.

Anbar is a President’s Professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as a Distinguished Sustainability Scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability.

“Ariel has been a key member of our faculty for some time, now. He serves a vital role in connecting our department’s work in molecular sciences with the School of Earth and Space Exploration, where he holds a joint appointment. He has been extremely innovative in applying skills from his Earth science work to an emerging area of biomedicine. And, he has been a driving force in creating new technology platforms for teaching science,” says Daniel Buttry, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“To say he makes a huge difference to the institution’s key missions would be a drastic understatement.”

In his research, Anbar makes a difference by seeing connections that aren’t always obvious and inspiring talented teams and communities to develop them. That approach has led him to co-author over a hundred peer-reviewed papers, many led by students, and to head many large team projects.

Now, Anbar is making a difference as a leader in online learning at ASU and nationally. 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.

He is the driving force behind an online class called Habitable Worlds, which teaches students majoring outside the sciences how to think like scientists and uses the intuition of a tech-savvy generation to kindle their interest and spur their education.

“Professor Anbar’s innovative approach to teaching made the impossible seem possible. The math in the Habitable Worlds course seemed insurmountable for a non-science major like me, but his attitude, ability, and confidence in me, turned me in to a better student. Prior to his class, I had no interest in any form of science. Now I find myself scouring the Internet for news about new-found solar systems and the possibility of another habitable world,” said ASU alumnus Justin Slavicek.

As with his research, Anbar’s success in online education comes from building a team to pursue an idea that wasn’t immediately obvious: That online technology could be used to teach introductory science in a way that was more engaging than a lecture class. In Habitable Worlds, students learn though game-like activities that help them understand the science behind big, unanswered questions like “are we alone?”

ASU’s newly established Center for Education Through Exploration (ETX), directed by Anbar, is an initiative designed to develop and extend this idea. The ETX Center will develop, deploy, and research digital platforms that help teach science as the means by which we explore the unknown, rather than simply learning what is already known, and do it at scale.

As part of ETX in collaboration with the Inspark Science Network and the innovative education technology startup company, Smart Sparrow, Anbar will guide the network in developing “smart courses” that teach basic science concepts through the exploration of intriguing questions, placing traditional science content in a compelling context.

“Ariel is reaching out beyond his excellent research and teaching in two major directions: first to forge a new and better path in online education, and second to help organize a team to construct productive paths forward in addressing climate change,” says Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“He’s bringing the community together and helping us make significant leaps forward. This is what ASU is about.”

The Gary S. Krahenbuhl Difference Maker Award has been awarded since 2003 to a tenured faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences “who demonstrates a broad vision for academic scholarship and a passion for engaging students in discovery and exploration.” Anbar is the 13th recipient of the award.