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How is a star born? ASU astronomers are helping NASA find the answer.
April 18, 2017

An ASU astronomer is helping design and build new balloon-borne observatory to explore how stars and solar systems form

A missing link lies in the chain of astronomers' understanding of how stars and planetary systems are born, but a team of scientists and engineers from Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration is on track to help find it.

"Astronomers have an idea how the Milky Way Galaxy's giant clouds of dust and molecular gas produce stars," SESE astronomer Chris Groppi said. "But we don't have a good idea how these clouds form in the first place."

To discover this is the aim of a newly funded NASA project named GUSTO, which is led by astronomer Christopher Walker of the University of Arizona. The project also involves Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Netherlands Institute for Space Research.

GUSTO is short for — take a deep breath — Galactic and Extragalactic Ultra-Long-Duration Balloon-Borne Spectroscopic-Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory.

As its full name suggests, this observatory won't be located on Earth. Instead, it'll soar at high altitude in the atmosphere: about 21 miles up, roughly three times higher than passenger jets typically cruise.

At this altitude the balloon-borne observatory will float above 99 percent of Earth's atmosphere. Effectively, the observatory will be out in space where it can view the universe mostly unimpeded.

Building on NASA's experience with balloon flights launched from Antarctica, the GUSTO project combines a new balloon of advanced design, plus a 30-inch-aperture telescope with two dozen detectors. The detectors cover a spectrum of "colors" that range between thermal infrared (heat radiation) and microwaves.

"This part of the spectrum," Groppi said, "is where we can track characteristic interstellar gases — ionized carbon, oxygen and nitrogen — as they cool off and collapse into clouds that will eventually become stars and probably planetary systems."

The project plans to use GUSTO to scan much of the Milky Way galaxy and all of a small nearby galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud. Project astronomers expect that this study will serve as a template to help them understand other galaxies.

"For GUSTO, our role at SESE is to design and build the processing electronics that handle the raw signals coming from the telescope and going to the detectors," Groppi said. GUSTO analyzes the sky in three different "colors." But each color uses eight detectors, so the entire instrument package must handle and process signals involving 24 detectors in all.

SESE electrical engineer Hamdi Mani and electronics technician Justin Matthewson are together responsible for designing and building the core of the processor, Groppi said. "Moreover, SESE astrophysics grad student Marko Neric will be working on both the engineering part and, later, the science from GUSTO."

GUSTO is coming at an appropriate time, Groppi said. Advances in detectors and in NASA's long-duration balloon capabilities make such an astronomical survey possible.

"To get data from previous Antarctic balloon experiments," Groppi said, "flights had to end when the winds at high altitude threatened to carry the balloon away from Antarctica. If we didn't halt a flight, we'd lose the instrument package and the data." Typical flights lasted 55 days or less.

"We don't have that problem anymore," he said. "We'll be sending GUSTO on a flight of at least 100 days, and we hope even longer." The key to a long flight is that GUSTO will send back its rough data via satellite links to the ground for processing and analysis.

And no longer confined to Antarctic airspace, the GUSTO balloon could drift away from the continent, over the open sea, as far as Australia. In fact, the project's astronomers would be quite happy if the balloon drifts even farther north, because that would let the telescope observe more of the northern reaches of the Milky Way and its clouds of gas and dust, which are mostly out of view from the southern hemisphere.

"We've been working on proposals to answer this science question since 2003," Groppi said. "We're all thrilled that we finally get to do it."


Top image: A team of researchers from ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration will build a key component for a NASA science mission called GUSTO. The project aims to discover how interstellar material comes together to make clouds of gas and dust — like these in the Milky Way — that give birth to new stars and planetary systems. Image by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team

Robert Burnham

Science writer , School of Earth and Space Exploration


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McCain Institute cohort visits ASU, talks ethics and character-driven leadership
April 18, 2017

Mira Koroma among scholars in international leadership program who spoke with ASU President Michael Crow in Tempe

Mira Koroma is the Frank Serpico of Sierra Leone; she could end up becoming the Teddy Roosevelt.

A police superintendent in the West African nation, Koroma is fiercely dedicated to ending the country’s endemic corruption.

Not to fight it. Not to discourage it. Not to campaign against it. 

To end it.

To this end, Koroma applied to the McCain Institute for International Leadership’s Next Generation Leaders program. It trains emerging leaders from around the world in values, ethics and character-driven leadership through a yearlong program blending professional development, exposure to top-level policymakers, and formal training in leadership and communications.

This year’s cohort visited the McCain Institute’s home base at Arizona State University in Tempe, meeting with university leaders and polishing their action plans on how to reach their goals.

More than 70 percent of Sierra Leone’s 6 million people live below the dollar-a-day international poverty line, living conditions that go hand-in-hand with corruption.

“Corruption is really bad, from top to bottom,” Koroma said. “It has become normal. It is expected. When you go to the hospital or the health clinic, you know you have to bribe to have services. When you want water or energy, you have to bribe. It is expected. People do it unconsciously because it is the norm of life.”

It enrages Koroma because Sierra Leone is rich in natural resources. “We are capable of taking care of all of our issues,” she said.

The government established an anti-corruption commission, but it rarely comes down on anyone inside government. Koroma thinks more law enforcement is not the right approach.

“Addressing the fruits of corruption is not addressing it at all,” she said. “We have to look at the root cause, and the root cause is lack of integrity, lack of morals, lack of values. We should address the root cause and then you can eliminate corruption. So go back to the homes and parents will teach their children and practice good morals in front of them. Inculcate such attitudes, and the children will become better citizens. … Gradually, there will be a change.”

ASU President Michael Crow spent time discussing leadership with the nine-member cohort. Leaders pursue their visions relentlessly, he said.

He discussed Horatio Nelson attacking the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, completely disregarding established protocols in naval warfare.

He described how Churchill responded when the British army was driven in defeat off the beaches of Dunkirk, threatening Hitler personally: “We’re coming for you,” he broadcast.

Leaders do things that are “nearly impossible,” Crow told the cohort. “Leadership is not a function of rank or position. … It’s a mind-set. … You do whatever is necessary.”

Crow asked each program member about their projects one by one.

“They believe it’s impossible to wipe out corruption in my country,” Koroma told him. “They accept that corruption is a norm in our society.”

Crow discussed how widespread corruption used to be in the U.S., citing the New York Police Department until the 1970s, which SerpicoAl Pacino was nominated for best actor for his portrayal of the title character in 1973's "Serpico." famously fought from within, blowing the whistle on other officers.

Crow also mentioned 19th-century New York’s Tammany Hall. As he spoke his eyes shot to the right, where Old Main was visible from the conference center window.

A former New York City Police commissioner who waged a successful one-man war on corruption once stood on those Old Main steps. He walked beats late at night and early in the morning, to make sure cops were on duty, awake and sober. He personally hired 1,600 recruits and mandated physical and weapons inspections. He installed phones in every police station. That was Theodore Roosevelt, who shortly after leaving the White House delivered a speech on the future of Arizona and the West in front of the oldest building at ASU. 

“The leader is the one who never, ever, ever says it can’t be done,” Crow said. “Leaders run on positive energy.”

Before entering the leadership program, Koroma had no idea how to address corruption. The McCain Institute program changed that, she said.

“When I came here, having gone through the ethics and values module, it was an eye-opener. I was able to realize the issue we are having is not corruption, it’s lack of morals, lack of ethics and lack of integrity. So if we address those issues, corruption will be terminated from our culture.”


Top photo: Mira Koroma wants to end corruption in Sierra Leone. A member of the McCain Institute's Next Generation Leaders program, she spoke with ASU President Michael Crow at the Decision Theater on Tuesday. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now