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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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Devils' Advocates: 50 years of walking the Sun Devil walk

April 18, 2017

Former campus ambassadors reunite at ASU for Devils' Advocates anniversary

The Devils’ Advocates student group is looking back on 50 years of walking backward around the Arizona State University campus.

The group, which leads tours for prospective ASU students and their families across the Valley campuses, is the longest continuously running student group at the university. Started in 1966 as a way to recruit more National Merit Scholars to ASU, there are now about 1,100 Devils’ Advocates alumni. Nearly 150 former Advos, as they call themselves, gathered at a “Walking the Walk” reunion at Old Main on Tuesday.

Jen Bergmark, a 2006 ASU graduate, came from California for the event and fondly recalled her time as a Devils’ Advocate.

“We had moved to Virginia, so I came from far away for my tour, and I was so impressed by my tour guide. I thought he was the coolest guy ever, and I wanted to be him,” said Bergmark, who was a member from 2003 to 2006.

The daylong reunion started with a session in which alumni got to ask questions about the current Devils’ Advocates.

Does the group still surprise new members in their dorm rooms to tell them they’ve been accepted?


Do they still wear khaki shorts with the white sunburst logo polo shirt?

Yes, but they also can wear black or maroon pants, shorts or skirts.

Do the Advos still take a yearly weekend retreat at Camp Tontozona in Payson?

No. The retreat is now a daylong event at a state park.

How many Devils’ Advocates are there?

There are more than 100 on the Tempe campus, with nearly 50 on the Downtown Phoenix, Polytechnic and West campuses.

This drew gasps from the alumni, some of whom didn’t know ASU has grown beyond Tempe.

Do the Advos still walk backward?



Katie Troupe, a senior accounting major and the current president of the Devils’ Advocates, addressed the alumni at a luncheon later in the day. She has been giving tours for four years.

“I walked backwards for the first three, but this year we started walking forwards,” she said.

The group loudly booed.

“I wanted to address the elephant in the room,” she said to raucous laughter.

This is the first year that the tour guides are walking forward. Studies have shown that guests on the tours would concentrate on the backward walking and not on the information they were hearing. So now the Advocates walk forward, with the group, and then stop and chat.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

The guides, chosen after a rigorous three-round interview process, are armed with lots of information about ASU and the campus, but one of the points is for families to just interact with a real student.

And that also was the goal when Bob McConnell, the ASU student body president in 1966, launched the group after reading an article that the University of Arizona was attracting many more National Merit Scholars than ASU.

“I thought, ‘That makes no sense.’ I was aware of how the athletics teams recruited, and I thought, ‘Why don’t we recruit National Merit Scholars like that?’ ” McConnell said.

The group later became a partnership between the ASU Alumni Association and the Admissions Office. Although the Advocates still conduct campus tours, they no longer visit high schools in Arizona or travel on out-of-state recruiting trips like the group did in the early years.

Back then, the group members were hand-selected. They would find a letter in their mailbox saying, “Congratulations! You’re a Devils’ Advocate.”

Patricia Ladue, who was in the group from 1975 to 1976, said it was much more low-key back then.

“It was much simpler. A tour was usually one student who already decided to go to ASU and their family, and it wasn’t like we were trying to compete with schools in California,” she said.

Ladue was among several dozen alumni who went on a campus tour Tuesday with current Devils’ Advocates. The alumni marveled at the changes.

“There used to be only one business building. It was all open here, it was all green,” Ladue said of the area where McCord Hall sits now. “I had a physical conditioning class, and we used to run around here.”

people receiving a tour of the Tempe campus
Former Devils' Advocates take a tour of the Tempe campus as part of the program's 50th anniversary reunion celebration. Although Devils' Advocates now walk forward during campus tours, they tried out the old style — walking backward — during the alumni event. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

 Chuck Wattles was in that first group in 1966, and stopped every few steps during the tour to take photos.

“You’re kind of in awe of how big it is and how many different colleges they have,” he said.

Wattles was among the 25 founding Devils’ Advocates. Nadia McConnell, now Bob's wife, was the first president, and she gave the group its name.

“The idea of Devils’ Advocates had a deeper meaning,” she said. “We wanted something unique and catchy.”

Phoenix attorney Brian LaCorte, who graduated in 1985, said that being in Devils’ Advocates was one of the highlights of his college career. He introduced the McConnells during the reunion luncheon and noted that they never received their own polo shirts with a sunburst logo because the group didn’t start wearing them until 1974.

“So now I’m going to walk backwards and give them their polo shirts.”


Top photo: Former Devils' Advocates gather for a reunion in front of Old Main on ASU's Tempe campus in recognition of the program’s 50th anniversary. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now