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ASU-led Psyche mission boosts case for a deeper dive into space

ASU director touts case for space exploration before House committee.
July 20, 2017

Foundation Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton goes to bat for space exploration at congressional subcommittee hearing

In the week marking the sixth anniversary of the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, scientists continue to make the case for space.

Arizona State University’s Lindy Elkins-Tanton was among those calling on the U.S. government to re-energize its support of deep-space research at a hearing before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in Washington, D.C., on July 18.

Elkins-Tanton, Foundation Professor and director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, took her place on the national stage to offer lawmakers a peek into the known-unknown and share reasons why expeditions like NASA’s ASU-led Psyche mission is critical to our future in space.

“Every time we do something in space it surprises us,” Elkins-Tanton told members of the committee. She emphasized the importance of creating a roadmap toward bigger, flagship missions through projects such as Psyche, noting, “We must try these smaller missions to find out where the biggest surprises are, and then put our money on making the big big discoveries.”

After 135 missions that helped construct the International Space Station and service various Spacelab missions, NASA ended its 30-year Space Shuttle program on July 21, 2011, with the completed landing of the shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Many worried that the end of the program would bring U.S. space exploration and research to a halt. But six years after the fact, the program still inspires.

Psyche is unquestionably one of the most profound space projects ASU has embarked upon in recent years. But it is not the only mission with an ASU nameplate. On the road to discoveries, the university is involved in at least 15 other missions, all of which engage students in science and engineering. And there are some — including Psyche — that also involve student interns in education, outreach and art. It’s this intersection of interdisciplinary collaboration that Elkins-Tanton said is paramount to moving space exploration to the next level and what she and ASU President Michael Crow are working on through the new Interplanetary InitiativeThe initiative is bringing together societal, educational and technical capabilities and concepts for space exploration. to get there.

As the principal investigator of the NASA Discovery Mission Psyche, Elkins-Tanton and her team are building plans — and a spacecraft — to journey to the asteroid Psyche starting August 2022. Discovered more than 165 years ago by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis, Psyche is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter — for comparison, about three times farther from the sun than the Earth is to the sun. The asteroid is believed to be composed of almost all metal and may be the core remnant of a small, early-formed planet.

The mission to Psyche is unique as a first-time exploration of a metal world. Through the added demonstration of the Deep Space Optical Communications tool to test laser communications between deep space and Earth, scientists will be able to study Psyche and compare the asteroid’s composition to models for the Earth’s core.

Members of the House Science, Space and Technology group also heard from four other planetary experts, each of whom shared status updates on their respective exploratory missions, including the Mars Rover 2020 and the Europa Clipper, which is set to launch in 2022 to study Jupiter’s moon Europa for habitability.

All of the scientists that participated in the hearing touted the conclusions of the U.S. National Research Council’s Planetary Decadal Survey, which helps the government, researchers and scientists prioritize space-exploration quests and their funding. The study stressed the need for maintaining a balanced portfolio of small, medium and flagship missions in order to enable more discoveries and address bigger challenges both in space and on Earth.

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Digging into the harsh world of ants

Ready for retirement? Be glad you're not an ant, ASU researcher says.
July 20, 2017

ASU researcher talks about worker turnover and production in colonies, brutal places that won't ever make a 'best spots to work' list

Imagine working for the harshest corporation in the world.

Naturally, they want to maximize production and growth. This is done by investing in lots of low-wage employees, rather than fewer well-paid workers. When production needs to be ramped up, more workers are brought on like holiday employees at a warehouse.

When they’re of a certain age, they’re sent out to die working, with no further help from corporate. All of this produces a large, thriving company.

Ant colonies will never make the list of best places to work, but those are some of the ways they grow successfully. A new study by Arizona State University scientists revealed what makes a thriving colony.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

“People will be interested to know there’s a lot more going on below the surface here in terms of organization and similarity to us than you might expect just by looking at ants scurrying around on the surface,” said lead author Christina Kwapich.

The study took a year and a half, and it involved counting almost 300,000 individual ants. The researchers were interested in how colonies performed in terms of worker loss and production, and how that affected colony reproduction.

“We went out and measured how many foragers, or ants that came out to collect food, died in a single year and then how many of those workers a colony was able to replace,” said Kwapich, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Life Sciences at ASU. “We did that because big colonies produce more new queens and males than small colonies, and we wanted to see why some colonies are better or worse.”

Colonies that produced the most workers, had the largest territories and did well seasonally were the colonies that produced smaller workers.

Ants bring out their dead. Two and a half acres of colonies produce enough dead ants to weigh as much as a house cat or a newborn baby.

The colony, which is the entire community of queens, workers, larvae and so on, is like a factory. There’s a division of labor, like Henry Ford’s production line. As ants age, they change jobs. The colony needs to allocate labor in an adaptive way.

Ants enter their colony

Christina Kwapich says ant colonies
around South Mountain Park/Preserve
can be 20-30 feet deep or more, 
with the queen residing at the bottom and 
food stores in the midsection.

Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“In one of our other studies, we showed that the proportions of colonies of ants who do certain jobs change throughout the year in a way that facilitates the production of new queens and winged males and workers at different times,” Kwapich said. “They’re maximizing production by changing the labor ratios in the colony.”

There’s no cozy retirement awaiting. Foragers don’t live long. It’s like building a bridge for the Japanese army in Thailand. Forager ants turn over 1.7 times per month.

“When the ant comes to the surface and begins collecting food, that’s at the very end of her life,” Kwapich said. “She’ll do that for about 18 days before she dies. The ants had the amount of investment that is corresponding to the life they’ll have on the surface. The colony doesn’t keep investing in them once they start doing this job. They don’t waste the fat young ones; they stay deep in the nest.”

It’s a little economics problem, Kwapich said. More seeds, more larvae, more workers mean a bigger, healthier colony. “That’s the goal of every colony: to reproduce,” she said.

Myrmecologists — entomologists who specialize in ants — know that if a colony has multiple queens, there’s going to be more worker production. That wasn’t the case with desert seed-harvesting ants, the subject of the study.

“What we actually found was that all the colonies had just a single queen, and what differed was the number of fathers that occurred in each colony,” Kwapich said. “We found that colonies with fewer fathers did better than colonies with multiple fathers. What this means is that during the mating flight, a queen either mated with more or less males before starting her colony and letting it grow into this creature with a division of labor and all sorts of interactive parts.”

The paper will be released in the August issue of Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. Kwapich’s co-authors were Bert Hölldobler and former ASU faculty member Juergen Gadau.

Incidentally, Kwapich was inspired to go into myrmecology by reading Hölldobler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Ants” when she was a kid. 

Top photo: ASU entomology postdoctoral researcher Christina Kwapich takes a sample of ants from a colony in a wash in the South Mountain Park/Preserve in Phoenix on July 18. Her recent research has focused on counting the annual turnover of worker ants within colonies. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now