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Department of Homeland Security taps ASU to lead newest Center of Excellence

September 14, 2017

Researchers to build data analytics, economic analysis, management systems to improve effectiveness of DHS organizations

Going through Transportation Security Administration screenings at the airport can be unpredictable. Lines may be long or short, equipment may be down and guidelines for screening passenger belongings can change regularly. What many passengers don’t realize is that TSA screenings also are quite expensive. Finding cost-effective ways to keep airports and flights safe is one of the many challenges the U.S. Department of Homeland Security faces daily.

To that end, DHS has turned to ASU researchers for help developing advanced tools that will improve operations in DHS organizations, including the TSA, U.S. Coast Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Customs and Border Patrol. DHS has selected only a small number of universities across the country to lead research efforts in its Centers of Excellence.

“That DHS chose ASU for this Center of Excellence speaks to ASU’s commitment to impactful, use-inspired research,” said Ross Maciejewski, who will serve as the center’s director. “We will develop new research and translate existing research into useful tools, such as data analytics, economic analysis or operations management systems that DHS organizations can put in place for improved decision-making and effectiveness.”

Some of the questions the center will explore include how to make TSA pre-screening more effective and how to develop tools to assess, mitigate and plan for threats, said Pitu Mirchandani, who will serve as the center’s chief scientist.

The new DHS Center of Excellence will be housed jointly in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and Global Security Initiative (GSI). The new center brings $20 million in research funding to ASU over the next five years, with potential to extend for another five years.

“By applying advanced analytical tools, this new center will support real-time decision making that enables the department’s operational components and other security practitioners to achieve improvements in operational efficiency,” said William N. Bryan, acting DHS under secretary for science and technology. “This new center will work to provide an extra edge to the personnel protecting our ports, border crossings, airports, waterways, transit systems and cyber infrastructure.”

ASU’s strength in security research comes, in part, from the interdisciplinary nature of research teams involved in security-focused projects across campus. Within GSI, for example, researchers bring to the table backgrounds in computer science, mathematics, engineering, communications, psychology, policy, law, economics and more.

“What sets us apart is not only the expertise and passion of our faculty, but the innovative institutional design at ASU that prioritizes collaborative, mission-focused research and impactful results,” said GSI Director Nadya Bliss. “We are excited to bring these strengths to support the Homeland Security Enterprise.”

The DHS center also will provide opportunities for students interested in careers focused on homeland security to conduct research and complete internships, giving ASU an opportunity to broaden its work in preparing the next generation of security practitioners.

“The comprehensive mission of the center will not only advance our research enterprise, but also our CIDSE (School of Computing, Informatics and Decisions Systems Engineering) academic programs through the opportunities the center will present for training and educating our students,” said Kyle Squires, dean of the Fulton Schools of Engineering.

ASU’s Fulton Schools of Engineering has more than 20,000 students enrolled and more than 400 faculty members. CIDSE, which has nearly 6,000 students enrolled, offers degrees including computer science, industrial engineering, computer systems engineering, informatics and software engineering. Researchers in CIDSE focus on areas including artificial intelligence, data mining and machine learning, information security, network algorithms and more.

“The selection of ASU to lead this Center of Excellence is a vote of confidence in our ability to identify, convene and work with experts from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds to address challenges that most concern our nation,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development and chief research and innovation officer at ASU. “We’re looking at security and decision-making issues with an all-encompassing lens, ensuring that the right tools and data are available to people protecting our borders, ports and infrastructure systems.”

Mirchandani is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. Mirchandani was the lead architect of the new multi-university, multi-disciplinary DHS center at ASU.

Maciejewski is a GSI Fellow and associate professor in CIDSE. Maciejewski’s research areas include geographical visualization, visual analytics focusing on public health, social media, criminal incident reports and the food-energy-water nexus. While earning his doctorate in computer engineering at Purdue University, he worked in Purdue’s DHS Center of Excellence focusing on visual analytics. His work at the center was honored by the U.S. Coast Guard with a Meritorious Team Commendation.

Leslie Minton

Media Relations Manager , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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Cassini's grand finale: ASU scientist comments on its discoveries

September 14, 2017

The spacecraft — whose mission ends Friday — showed us a dynamic Saturn, its 62 moons, and ice particles as large as office buildings

The Cassini space probe will end its mission early Friday morning. After 13 years orbiting Saturn, traveling some 4.9 billion miles total, Cassini will plummet into Saturn in a matter of minutes, vaporizing as it enters its atmosphere.

Arizona State University’s David Williams, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and a NASA supported scientist, knows Cassini well. While not a member of the Cassini Science Team, Williams supported the team in developing the concepts and techniques for making geologic maps of Saturn’s moon Titan from Cassini’s images. He has followed the Cassini mission since its beginning, and has worked with a number of Cassini scientists.

Question: What did we know about Saturn and its moons before Cassini? 

Answer: Prior to the Cassini mission, Saturn had been largely explored by Earth-based telescopes, and quick flybys from NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11 (1970s) and by Voyager 1 and 2 (1980 and 1981) spacecraft. These missions showed some complexity existed in Saturn’s atmosphere and ring system, and that it had a series of heavily cratered icy moons with some surface variations. But those flybys did not provide detailed information about Saturn and its moons. So NASA began plans soon after the Voyager flybys to develop a Saturn orbiter mission, which became Cassini.

Q: How has Cassini redefined this view of Saturn and its moons?

A: The Cassini mission has greatly expanded our knowledge of how dynamic Saturn, its rings and its 62 moons are as planetary objects. Cassini has shown that Saturn has a very dynamic atmosphere similar to Jupiter’s, with giant storms that periodically erupt in its clouds. It has a dynamic northern polar region with an unusual hexagon-shaped cloud pattern surrounding a hurricane-like eye at its center. The storm is equivalent in size to four Earth’s.

Cassini showed that Saturn’s rings are composed of icy particles, some as large as office buildings, and some as small as smoke particles. Many of the small moons orbit within the ring plane, contort and distort the rings into dynamic patterns. And Cassini has shown that Saturn has geologically active moons. Two in particular, Titan and Enceladus, have altered our understanding of planetary objects. Both have liquid water oceans in their interiors. Enceladus erupts geysers of water vapor and organic materials from its south pole, and Titan has both wind-formed dunes and lakes and rivers formed by flowing methane.

Saturn's rings as seen by Cassini
Bright spokes and the shadow of a moon grace Saturn's B ring in this Cassini spacecraft image. Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Q: Why is this important to those of us on Earth?

A: Cassini has shown that Earth-like atmospheric and geologic processes are not restricted to the Earth, or Mars and Venus, but can occur on icy worlds and in the cold outer reaches of the solar system. It has shown that the ingredients for life can exist in more varied ways than we previously understood from studying the Earth alone, and it has expanded our understanding of the universe. 

Q: What is the legacy of the Cassini spacecraft? 

A: Cassini’s 13-year-long study of the Saturn system has set the stage for what’s next in planetary exploration. The knowledge gained, and the experience of the scientists and engineers has prepared them for the next major flagship mission to explore the outer solar system, the Europa Clipper mission, which will launch in 2022 to orbit and explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, which has a liquid water ocean underneath its icy crust. Faculty and students in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration will be building instruments and analyzing data for that mission in the next decade and beyond.

Q: Are you sad to see Cassini go?

A: Yes, I am sad. It is always sad to see the end of an era of exploration. But new exploration awaits. With luck, Cassini’s discoveries will enable new missions back to Saturn, and new discoveries, in coming decades. 


Top photo: With this view, Cassini captured one of its last looks at Saturn and its main rings from a distance. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Associate Director , Media Relations & Strategic Communications