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ASU prof: Understanding the skies helps us understand where we've come from.
No equipment needed to view rare five-planet alignment — except an alarm clock.
Next ASU astronomy open house — free telescope viewing! — is Feb. 5.
January 25, 2016

Best time to view five-planet alignment is yet to come, according to ASU scientist — who shares why Arizona is such a top spot for stargazing

Have you made it up before dawn to see the alignment of five planets in the skyline? If not, don’t worry — the best is yet to come, according to Arizona State University scientist Rogier Windhorst.

The morning alignment is visible through Feb. 27, though the moon will be crashing the party through Feb. 6. Some photo hounds might like the lunar juxtaposition, but Windhorst said the planets will be easier to see when the moon — and its glow — moves on to the other side of the sky. He recommended viewing the rare sky show Feb. 7 or later.

The five-planet lineup — Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter — happens only about once a decade.

“We don’t actually discuss this in our labs, because it’s so rare an event, but my TAs and I are talking about making this an extra credit,” said Windhorst, a Regents’ and Foundation Professor of astrophysics in the School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is a unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and James Webb Space Telescope interdisciplinary scientist who teaches many of the labs for AST: 114: Astronomy Lab II.

No fancy equipment is needed (other than a good alarm clock) to see the five planets, but Windhorst said a pair of binoculars will make it easier to view Mercury.

For those who want additional reference materials, a star chart (around $3) and the National Audubon Society’s “Field Guide to the Night Sky” ($21.95) are the materials students use in his astronomy labs, and are available at the ASU Bookstores. Windhorst's lab website also offers a number of resources in the "Links" section.

A diagram shows the five planets that will be visible before sunrise.

Windhorst said those who live in the East Valley have an advantage — “Get up at 5, drive half an hour east toward the Superstitions, get off at Sossaman and drive toward Queen Creek; you’ll have a much stronger chance of seeing it” — but anyone in Arizona can enjoy the state’s advantages.

“Arizona is — there’s competition from Hawaii — but Arizona is still called the astronomy capital of the U.S.,” Windhorst said. “Our desert environment offers some neat advantages: 3,400 to 3,600 hours of sunshine a year, an average of 10 hours a day. Which means you get almost the same fraction of clear sky — though that’s not entirely true anymore because of climate change.”

Some of the cities in Arizona have made big strides toward protecting the skies. Windhorst in particular praised the efforts by Tucson and Flagstaff to switch to sodium (yellow) lights, which cause less light pollution interference.

“Dark skies, like clean air and clean water, are very precious. Once you lose it, you can almost never get it back,” Windhorst said.

ASU offers a number of resources for skygazers: among them, the Marston Exploration Theater on the Tempe campus, which offers a range of 3-D astronomy shows; the annual Earth and Space Exploration Day; and the upcoming ASU Night of the Open Door, when all of the campuses roll out the welcome mat for visitors.

For those who want to put an eye to a telescope, graduate students from the School of Earth and Space Exploration welcome the public to a free monthly open house in Tempe that includes several hours of telescope viewing, weather permitting. The next one is from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5 (telescopes open from 8 to 10 p.m.) and will feature lectures about ASU research in the Himalayas and launching balloon experiments in Antarctica.

Windhorst, whose group at ASU has contributed significantly to unraveling the formation and evolution of distant galaxies with the Hubble Space Telescope, said familiarity with the skies is important for everyone, not just those in science careers.

“At the basic level, we want to understand where we come from,” he said. “We want to understand why there are stars and an Earth that is good enough for humans to live on, and the rest of the animal kingdom. It’s not so obvious why that should be the case. And it’s not so obvious how many habitable earths there are in the universe. … We want to understand where we come from, and how often this might have occurred.”  

The new NASA telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, will focus on that, Windhorst said. He has been involved with that project since 2001 and said the telescope will study the first galaxies and be very good for characterizing exoplanets.

“For farmers and sailors, it was important to know where the stars are in the seasons, and predict the seasons and predict the harvest times and sea routes,” Windhorst said. “For people today, it’s important to know because it’s part of our scientific knowledge, to know where we come from and where we’re going.

“To understand global warming … someday we’ll be able to measure carbon dioxide with telescopes like James Webb. Venus has excess carbon dioxide, which is natural. But much of our carbon dioxide is human-made — [it’s important] to look at planets to see where life can be sustained, and for long enough to develop intelligent life. And that’s not such a simple question.”


Top image: The Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 image is a composite of separate exposures taken in 2002 to 2012 with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3. Learn more here. Photo by NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

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ASU professors, students conduct research on Antarctica.
Antarctica, where most of the populace is researchers, including some from ASU.
January 25, 2016

Students and faculty at ASU have been digging out their hats, scarves and boots this year as Arizona experienced a colder-than-usual winter. But for Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, ASU’s senior vice president for Knowledge Enterprise Development, this winter has felt positively balmy after a recent trip to Antarctica. 

Panchanathan was invited to visit Antarctica with the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of his role on the National Science Board. Board members, appointed by the president, advise on national policies regarding research and education in science and engineering.

While there, Panchanthan visited multiple research sites and learned about the NSF-funded work happening at each — exploring stars in the night sky, ozone in the atmosphere, life in an extreme ecosystem and neutrinos bombarding the Earth, among others.

“The most exciting part for me was to find the science that’s going on that is done by our graduate students and scientists,” Panchanathan said. “The level of commitment that they have to pursue science, that they will spend that much time in Antarctica, was truly inspirational.”

Although Antarctica is a harsh environment, it is an excellent location for many types of research, according to the NSF:

• Antarctica is an ideal astronomical observatory, with long periods of darkness in the Antarctic winter and no interfering city lights.

• Antarctica is where most of the world’s meteorites are found.

• The Southern Ocean is the largest and most fertile of the world's oceans. Its cold, constant temperatures provide a unique opportunity to study "deep sea" life in relatively shallow water.

• With almost 10 percent of Earth's continental crust, Antarctica holds substantial geologic records of plate tectonic processes, evolution and dispersal of life, and evidence of past environmental conditions.

• In some areas, such as the Dry Valleys, erosion is extremely limited, so fossils of past life have not been destroyed.

• The Dry Valleys are also ideal for studying adaptation to extreme environments.

As Panchanathan was leaving Antarctica, an ASU faculty member, Chris Groppi, and his graduate student Kristina Davis were just arriving. The School of Earth and Space Exploration researchers are among multiple ASU faculty, students and alumni who have visited the coldest continent to learn more about our planet and our universe.

Space balloon

Groppi is an experimental astrophysicist. One of his research projects focuses on uncovering mysteries about molecular clouds. These clouds of gas and dust are the birthplace of new stars and planets. Scientists know molecular clouds exist, but no one knows how they originally formed. They shine in terahertz light, which falls between infrared and microwave radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum.

“Terahertz light is about 5,000 times redder than what your eyes see,” Groppi said.

Earth’s atmosphere absorbs terahertz light before it ever reaches the ground. To see it, Groppi needs to go where the light is visible — about 120,000 feet up into the atmosphere. One option is to build a spaceship, but a better (and 10-20 times cheaper) option is to use a giant weather balloon.

Working with researchers from 12 other institutions, Groppi constructed an experiment that includes a 15-foot tall, 4,000-pound telescope attached to a weather balloon.

The telescope must be cooled down to about -450 degrees Fahrenheit to function properly as it journeys through the stratosphere attached to the balloon. And this is no ordinary balloon: At more than 400 feet in diameter, the Long Duration Balloon is larger than a football field and requires enough helium to fill two semi trucks. It also weighs more than 5,000 pounds.

Antarctica is the perfect place to launch the balloon because of the continent’s weather patterns this time of year. Winds blow in a circle forming the polar vortex. The researchers can send the balloon up into the vortex, where it will make a big circle around the continent and return to the same location in about two weeks.

Groppi has been coming to Antarctica since he was a graduate student. He has worked at both McMurdo StationMcMurdo Station is a U.S. Antarctic research center on the south tip of Ross Island, which is in the New Zealand-claimed Ross Dependency on the shore of McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. — Wikipedia and the South Pole, and says the two locations are quite different.

“McMurdo is a 1,500-person town that has three bars, which are very popular,” Groppi said, adding that it reminded him of “small-town America.” But at the South Pole there are many more people, so it felt less like a town to him and more like a research station.

station in Antarctica seen from top of hill

McMurdo Station seen from the top of
Observation Hill. McMurdo is situated near
the Dry Valleys of the Transantarctic Mountains
and is Antarctica’s largest community.

This and top photo by Chris Groppi.

The coldest desert

Despite the common belief that Antarctica is just a vast expanse of snow and ice, there are actually areas with no ice at all. In fact, McMurdo station is located near the Dry Valleys of the Transantarctic Mountains, which are deglaciated in many places.

That is where Becky Ball has traveled on five separate research excursions. An assistant professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Ball is a soil bio-geochemist. That’s right, she goes to Antarctica for the soil, which can only be found on the tiny fraction of land — less than 1 percent — that’s not covered by ice sheet.

Ball studies the carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients in soil and the microbial and invertebrate organisms that help cycle those nutrients. The area where she works is a polar desert, and it’s incredibly dry. The most abundant land animal is a microscopic nematode.

Her most recently funded research will focus on a different part of Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula that points out toward South America. For this project, she won’t be stationed on land at all. Ball and her crew, including ASU undergraduate student Connor Wetzel-Brown, will be ship-based, island hopping from top to bottom of the peninsula. They’ll take soil samples along the way at every degree of latitude.

“The climate gets harsher as you go further south, so we’ll look at how climate and other factors influence what lives in the soil,” Ball said.

The peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming places on the planet. This, along with more human activity, has led to an influx of invasive species. Ball is looking to see how these factors are changing the environment, starting with the soil.

Climate change in action

Antarctica is an ideal living laboratory to see climate change in action. It’s also the best place to study the effects of ultraviolet radiation from the stratospheric ozone hole. That was the goal of Thomas “Tad” Day, a plant ecologist and professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences. In 1995, Day started traveling to the Antarctic Peninsula to examine how plants were being affected by increased sun exposure.

Up to that point, scientists had only studied this phenomenon in the lab. They used sun lamps in an artificial environment, and no one was sure if the findings would translate accurately to the natural world. To find out, Day led a team of researchers to Antarctica. The Antarctic Peninsula is exposed to extremely high levels of ultraviolet rays, making it the perfect field site. Day’s research confirmed that the increased sunlight was impairing plant growth by about 10 to 25 percent.

Antarctica might be perceived by many to be a sprawling, icy mystery, but it’s also the ideal place for some scientists to pursue the burning questions of their field.

“It’s truly a privilege to be able to interact with scientists,” Panchanathan said. “The level of teamwork, friendliness, humanity that was there was amazing to watch and was truly inspiring.”


For more ASU research in Antarctica, check out The roof at the bottom of the world.

To learn more about Chris Groppi's research, watch Student aims for the stars in research, athletics.

Written by Allie Nicodemo and Diane Boudreau, Knowledge Enterprise Development