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ASU chosen to lead lunar CubeSat mission

ASU has been chosen to design, build and run a mission to to the moon
ASU postdoctoral fellow is principal investigator for mission to the moon
ASU one of only 7 U.S. institutions doing interplanetary CubeSat missions.
August 25, 2015

Principal investigator is postdoctoral fellow

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2015, click here.

A spacecraft the size of a shoebox with Arizona origins will soon be orbiting our nearest neighbor to create a map of water-ice on the moon.

The NASA-selected CubeSat will be designed, built and operated at Arizona State University and is one piece of the agency's larger mission to fully characterize the water content at the lunar South Pole in preparation for exploration, resource utilization and improved understanding of the moon’s geologic history.

The spacecraft, called the Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper, or “LunaH-Map” for short, will produce the most detailed map to date of the moon’s water deposits, unveiling new details about the depth and distribution of the ice that has been tentatively identified from previous missions. Confirming and mapping those deposits in detail will help NASA understand how much water might be available and will help inform NASA’s strategy for sending humans farther into the solar system.

The ability to search for useful assets, such as hydrogen, can potentially enable astronauts to manufacture fuel and other provisions needed to sustain a crew for a journey to Mars, reducing the amount of fuel and weight that NASA would need to transport from Earth.

This is the third major space project for which NASA has selected ASU in the past year, and it is the first planetary science spacecraft mission that will be led by ASU. It represents a major achievement for planetary geologist Craig Hardgrove, the School of Earth and Space Exploration postdoctoral research associate who proposed the mission and will be overseeing it as principal investigator.

“All of our previous NASA mission involvement has consisted of us having instruments on other people’s missions. This is ASU’s first interplanetary mission – this is our mission, our chance to trail blaze,” said Jim Bell, professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and mission deputy principal investigator.

“It’s a privilege to be leading this fantastic team, and I want to make sure we do it right and deliver on our promise to NASA,” Hardgrove said.

CubeSats are part of a growing movement that is revolutionizing space exploration because of their small size and low cost of construction and operation, effectively opening the door to early-career scientists, providing them an opportunity to operate missions of their own.

“How much good science can we do with these small missions? We don’t know the answer, but we will be one of the first groups to try to answer the question,” Bell said.

A university affair

Although this is one of NASA’s first forays into deep-space science experiments with CubeSats, the technology isn’t new to NASA and universities, which have recognized their value and have been building them for years.

“CubeSats are a model for a new way to gain access to space, but they are also a model for how to teach students how to design, build, operate and troubleshoot a real space mission,” said Bell, who also directs ASU’s NewSpace Initiative. “Students want to know how a spacecraft works, but not just from a PowerPoint presentation. This is their opportunity to build something. Break it. Fix it. Test it again. Launch it. Operate it. And that is the beauty of CubeSats; they provide students with the experience of going through the complete mission process.”

LunaH-Map will be designed, built and tested on ASU’s Tempe campus, in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and several other partners supplying space-qualified hardware and services. LunaH-Map leverages technology from at least six small commercial space companies with expert knowledge and experience in building spacecraft hardware: Radiation Monitoring Devices, Busek, KinetX, NASA’s Ames Research Center, Catholic University of America, and Planetary Resources.

Overseeing all aspects of the spacecraft engineering is the mission’s chief engineer and co-investigator, Jekan Thanga, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. Much of the design and development of LunaH-Map will be done in his Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTREx) Laboratory and clean rooms in ASU’s state-of-the-art Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4, which with their glass windows offer an opportunity for visitors to watch the spacecraft being built, tested and operated.

In total, there will be 15 to 20 ASU professionals, including students, working on all aspects of the design, development, testing and delivery of the spacecraft.

“Within the United States there only about seven institutions that are doing interplanetary CubeSat missions,” Thanga said. “ASU brings together scientists and engineers to work on radical new concepts together, from the start. This innovative collaboration strategy leads to greater science return, and more creativity and capability.”

Other co-investigators from ASU include Professor Mark Robinson and Associate Research Professor Paul Scowen from the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Small, low-cost, but sophisticated

LunaH-Map, along with a number of other deep-space CubeSats, is a candidate to fly to lunar orbit on Exploration Mission-1, the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will enable astronauts in the Orion spacecraft to travel deeper into the solar system. NASA will provide several CubeSat missions spots on the maiden SLS mission.

LunaH-Map is a 6U (“6 unit”) CubeSat. One “unit” is a cube measuring 4.7 inches on a side; LunaH-Map strings six of these CubeSat building blocks together and weighs as much as a small child (about 30 pounds).

But just because it is small, doesn’t mean it is less sophisticated – in this case, as with our smartphones, size doesn’t compromise capabilities. LunaH-Map’s design allows for all the necessary sensors and instruments to be securely packaged inside. A jack-in-the-box-like deployer releases the spacecraft and panels pop out like little wings.

Once it arrives at the moon, the tiny spacecraft will embark on a 60-day science mission, consisting of 141 science orbits, using a suite of science instruments.

A photograph of Craig Hardgrove, the principal investigator on the CubeSat mission
The tiny CubeSat is a big win for planetary geologist Craig Hardgrove, the School of Earth and Space Exploration postdoctoral research associate who proposed the mission and will be overseeing it as principal investigator. Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Its main instrument is a neutron detector designed to sense the presence of hydrogen by measuring the energies of neutrons that have interacted with and subsequently leaked back out of the material in the top meter of the lunar surface.

“We know from previous missions there is an increased abundance of hydrogen at the lunar poles. But we don’t know how much or exactly where,” Hardgrove said. “NASA has funded three different CubeSats to learn more: Lunar IceCube, Lunar FLASHLIGHT and LunaH-Map. They all look for water in different ways and provide different types of information.”

As LunaH-Map flies over the lunar South Pole at a very low altitude, it counts the energies of neutrons that have leaked out of the lunar surface. The energy distribution of the neutrons that hit the detectors tells us about the amount of hydrogen that’s buried in the top meter of lunar soil.

LunaH-Map will map the hydrogen content of the entire South Pole of the moon, including within permanently shadowed regions at high resolution. LunaH-Map will measure the bulk hydrogen content, up to a meter beneath the lunar surface, while the instruments on both Lunar IceCube and FLASHLIGHT will tell us about the very top few microns. LunaH-Map will create the highest-resolution maps of regional near-surface (top-meter) water-ice distribution across the entire South Pole of the moon.

“Science is a human endeavor, and part of that is knowing each other and trusting each other. And when it comes to a NASA mission and taxpayer dollars to do exploration, you got to have the credentials. You have to be trusted, you need to have proven yourself, you need to show that you can make it happen and you won’t fail. And we’ve got a history now where that’s the case,” said Linda Elkins-Tanton, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Nikki Cassis

marketing and communications director , School of Earth and Space Exploration

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First-year teacher training to be boon for new faculty

August 25, 2015

It’s the first day of classes at Arizona State University. You are a first-year professor. Your goal: to be that valued instructor who meets each individual’s needs. 

No small challenge for teachers with ASU’s enrollment and diversity at record levels in this year’s incoming student body. New faculty need to connect with learners who range from eager to half awake, 17 to 40-plus, confident to seeking, local to international, and first-generation to business professional. 

To help support new faculty as they begin teaching, ASU will launch a program devised by 12 inaugural Teaching Fellows: the new Provost’s Teaching Academy. 

“The ASU faculty offers a nearly unlimited pool of talent to support our junior professors,” said Deb Clarke, vice provost for academic personnel. “The academy’s teaching fellows are some of the most accomplished of our faculty members, at the cutting edge as teachers and mentors. We’re fortunate to be able to draw on their expertise to advance ASU’s commitment to excellence in teaching” 

This fall the fellows will focus on working with new junior faculty members and developing a number of 90-minute instructional modules on effective teaching and learning techniques, which will be implemented for the 2016-2017 academic year.  

Students in this Gen Y, or Millennial, cohort are very different as a group from previous generations. That means that instructional and learning strategies need to be modified to ensure that this new generation of students has the opportunity to learn, develop necessary critical-thinking and problem-solving skills and stay engaged.

As the program progresses, fellows will also mentor faculty members in areas such as balancing research and teaching, teaching technology-enhanced courses, using social media to promote learning, using classroom learning assessment techniques, and designing effective test questions.

“Topics were selected based on a survey sent out to all non-tenured faculty at the university, asking what information might have boosted their success and skills as teachers when they first arrived on campus,” Clarke said. Among those topics highlighted: being sensitive to diversity and inclusion, and teaching controversial subjects.

“The academy is going to help both teachers and ASU students,” said Teaching Fellow Mary Niemczyk. “I think faculty members will also enjoy their jobs more by learning what we can teach them about engaging with students, and that in turn can have a positive impact on student retention and graduation rates.”

New faculty come to ASU in command of the knowledge and skills inherent to their disciplines, but not all arrive with prior experience in teaching their own courses, and fewer have received any systematic, research-based training in teaching, according to Teaching Fellow Steve Semken.

“When and where I started, the only resources available to me were copies of lecture notes and a few ‘war stories’ from my more senior colleagues,” Semken said. “I’m happy to be involved in a program that promotes effective, evidence-based teaching and helps new faculty build pedagogical knowledge to complement their research expertise.”

The 12 selected for the academy include:

Tamiko Azuma, associate professor and director of the Attention, Memory and Language Lab in the in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science in the College of Health Solutions. Her research interests center on memory and language processing in healthy monolingual and bilingual speakers, military veterans and adults with traumatic brain injury. 

Karen Bruhn, principal lecturer with Barrett, The Honors College at ASU. Her research interests are in religious studies and interdisciplinary pedagogy, and she teaches the interdisciplinary first-year seminar, “The Human Event,” at Barrett.

Stanlie James, professor of African and African American Studies with a joint appointment in the Women and Gender Studies program in the School of Social Transformation. Her research includes women’s international human rights and Black feminisms. She has lectured widely both nationally and internationally and is a recipient of the ASU Commission on the Status of Women's Outstanding Achievement and Contribution Award.

Erik Johnston, associate professor and director of the Center for Policy Informatics in the School of Public Affairs. His research interests include understanding the dynamics of policy decisions for building collaborations in civic, business and academic contexts, the influence of central-remote office arrangements, complex systems methodology, communication, quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Barbara Lafford, professor of Spanish in the School of International Letters and Cultures. She has published and given workshops nationally and internationally in sociolinguistics, second-language acquisition, computer-assisted language learning, and languages for specific purposes/experiential learning.

Bertha Manninen, associate professor of philosophy in the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Her scholarly interests include applied ethics, biomedical ethics, normative and meta-ethics, philosophy of religion, social and political philosophy.

Pamela Marshall, associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Her research ranges from the study of cellular response, mathematical modeling and gene networks to science pedagogy, learning communities and the way students learn science. 

Mary Niemczyk, associate professor and chair of the aviation programs in The Polytechnic School, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Her research focuses on improving instructional and learning strategies to enhance the performance of individuals in complex, ill-defined environments, such as aviation.

Wilhelmina Savenye, professor of educational technology in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She has published widely about instructional design and evaluation of technology-based learning systems. Her work has been conducted in settings as diverse as public schools, museums, botanical gardens, zoos, universities, corporations and with the U.S. Army.

Steven Semken, associate professor of geology and geoscience education in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Semken has led teachers' workshops and taught for 27 years with the Dine (Tribal) College, U.S. Air Force Academy and ASU. In 2014, he received the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Zebulon Pearce Teaching Award.

Jean Stutz, professor of science and math in the College of Letters and Sciences. An award-winning teacher and student adviser, her research centers on human activities and the diversity and functioning of plants and microbes in arid, riparian and urban ecosystems, as well as innovative teaching and learning.

Max Underwood, President’s Professor and architect in the Design School in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. His scholarship and creative activities interweave the art of teaching with the realities of exemplary design and architectural practice. He received three national American Institute of Architects awards for his teaching innovations.

Peggy Coulombe,
Office of the Provost

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering