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ASU's Curiosity rover scientists revel in recent Red Planet findings

March 20, 2013

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL, also known as Curiosity rover), was sent to answer a simple question: Was Mars ever hospitable to life? The recent discovery of life-supporting chemical ingredients in a rock sample drilled by the rover on the Red Planet suggests scientists finally have an answer.

Curiosity relies on a suite of science instruments to acquire information about the geology, atmosphere, environmental conditions and potential biosignatures on Mars. Jim Bell with MSL replica Download Full Image

Arizona State University professors, researchers and students from the School of Earth and Space Exploration, as well as alumni, are involved with several of the rover’s instruments.

Professor Meenakshi Wadhwa is a collaborator with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, essentially an analytical chemistry system. Located inside the rover, SAM examines the chemistry of samples it ingests. Wadhwa is one of the scientists who guides Curiosity to interesting targets and interprets data from the mission. Amy McAdam, an ASU alumna, also is working on SAM.

Professor Jack Farmer is a science team member for Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin), which is designed to examine the chemical and mineralogical properties of rocks and soils. Over the past few months he has been supporting mission operations (mainly the CheMin instrument team and as a Geology Theme Group participant), planning observations and analyzing downlinked data.

Last week, the rover’s science team announced that an analysis of rock by the SAM and CheMin instruments indicates that past environmental conditions were favorable for microbial life.

“CheMin’s initial analysis of a core taken from the Yellowknife Bay bedrock site has confirmed the presence of up to 20 percent by weight phyllosilicates (clays), minerals that require water for their formation. This has significantly advanced our understanding of habitable environments at Gale Crater earlier in the history of Mars,” said Farmer.

A picture is worth a thousand words

The rover also carries a state-of-the-art imaging system comprised of 17 cameras. Professor Jim Bell plays a leading role in the targeting and interpretation of images recovered from the science cameras – Mast Camera (Mastcam), Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), and the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI).

The rover’s Mastcam, which takes color images and color video footage of the Martian terrain, can also serve as a mineral-detecting and hydration-detecting tool, reported Bell. “Some iron-bearing rocks and minerals can be detected and mapped with Mastcam’s near-infrared filters,” he said.

Using both the infrared-imaging capability of Mastcam and another instrument that shoots neutrons into the ground to probe for hydrogen, researchers have found more hydration of minerals near the clay-bearing rock than at locations Curiosity visited earlier.

Ratios of brightness in different Mastcam near-infrared wavelengths can indicate the presence of some hydrated minerals. The technique was used to check rocks in the Yellowknife Bay area where Curiosity’s drill last month collected the first powder from the interior of a rock. Some rocks in Yellowknife Bay are crisscrossed with bright veins.

“With Mastcam, we see elevated hydration signals in the veins that we don’t see in the rest of the rock,” said Melissa Rice, a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology and one of Bell’s former graduate students. “The bright veins contain hydrated minerals that are different from the clay minerals in the surrounding rock matrix.”

Bell’s research program was responsible for developing the “hydration index” results that Rice presented March 18 at a news briefing at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas.

Professor Alberto Behar is co-investigator on DAN, the Russian-made Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons instrument, which detects hydrogen beneath the rover. Behar is part of the team defining what the DAN instrument does on a sol to sol basis, developing the commands for new investigations, and analyzing the telemetry data to determine the state of health of the instrument.

“Variability in DAN data has been used to identify when we have crossed into a compositionally unique terrain. It has measured the highest water content on terrain traversed to be 7 weight percent water,” said Behar.

On the home front

Not all the fun is 200 million miles away on the Martian surface. Bell, research staff member Austin Godber, and a group of undergraduate and graduate students are developing key parts of the Mastcam color image data-processing pipeline at ASU. Similar data processing work is also going on at ASU for images streaming back from NASA’s older rover, Opportunity, which landed in 2004 but is still operating well. Bell is the lead scientist for Opportunity’s Pancam stereo color imaging cameras.

The rover camera work involves analyzing images of the Mastcam and Pancam color calibration targets and developing computer routines that allow the results from those cal-target images to be applied to images of soils, rocks, and mountain scenes in Curiosity’s Gale Crater field site and along Opportunity’s traverse in Meridiani Planum, half a planet away from Gale Crater.

“We brought swatches of known colors with us to Mars. If we process the images to get those colors right, we know we’re getting the colors right when we look out at the landscape,” said Bell.

One of the other exciting aspects of the work is that ASU students and staff are among the first people on Earth to work with new images radioed back from both rovers on Mars every day.

“Who knows what discoveries we’ll make – but whatever they are, they might be noticed first by an ASU undergrad or grad student, toiling away in the night calibrating some of the latest images from the Red Planet. That’s pretty cool work,” said Bell. Some of that cool work is being conducted on the ground floor of the new Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV in the Mission Operations Center, where Bell, staff, and students process images and hold occasional meetings with scientists and mission operations staff from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Nikki Cassis

marketing and communications director, School of Earth and Space Exploration

ASU adds new routes for students to enter teaching career

March 20, 2013

Arizona State University is gearing up to produce more and better-prepared school teachers, addressing a critical need in classrooms around the state. In fall 2013, ASU will offer a new certification program and several new bachelor’s degrees that can lead directly to a teaching career.

The new programs will allow students to take more courses in their major field, while offering training in the methods and practice of teaching and also field placements in local schools. Students’ degrees will be in content areas such as mathematics, physics, English and history, allowing deeper mastery of a subject. But they’ll be equipped to handle the challenges of a high school classroom. student teacher Download Full Image

The Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College has worked closely with other ASU colleges and with the Arizona Department of Education to roll out the new pathways to teaching careers. Students have asked for them, as many realize by their sophomore year that they’d like to be teachers, but they’re reluctant to switch majors.

“We need as many routes to a teaching career as possible,” says Elizabeth Hinde, associate professor in the Teachers College and director of the division of teacher preparation. “There’s a lot of interest in this, among students and in the colleges. Momentum has been building over the past several years, and Teachers College is collaborating with other ASU colleges to prepare more teachers than they currently do, especially in areas of critical need.”

Currently a bachelor’s degree with high school teaching certification is available only through the Teachers College, as a major in secondary education with a concentration in a content area. Math and science majors in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, for instance, must return for post-graduate work in order to be certified.

Because of the teacher shortage, particularly in math and science, many middle- and high-school teachers are working outside their strengths, teaching subjects in which they have little background.

The new undergraduate certificate for secondary education that leads to teacher certification already has about 45 students who plan to enroll, though it was just launched in February. It is a university certificate, making them eligible for state certification. The program may require students to take more than 120 credit hours to graduate.

“It’s an absolute advantage for students, as it allows them to pursue a content area as a major and to add this certification before they graduate,” says Erica Mitchell, director of undergraduate services for Teachers College. “They will be well prepared, and highly qualified and marketable to school districts.”

Many students majoring in history, English and math begin searching for a career path in sophomore or junior year, she says. Some have always wanted to teach. The new program will provide a way for them to stay within their majors, yet be certified to teach by the time they graduate.

“We’re especially targeting high achieving students who entered ASU as freshmen with many credit hours completed, and who have four-year scholarships,” says Mitchell. “This is a great option for them.”

Students in any major which allows a number of electives can enroll in the program, as long as they don’t wait too late in their college career to sign up.

In a true partnership, Teachers College also has worked with units in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) to design four new bachelor’s degrees: a B.S. in mathematics with a concentration in secondary education, a B.A. in history with a secondary education certificate, a B.S. in physics with a concentration in secondary education, and a B.A. in English with a concentration in secondary education.

With an especially critical shortage of math teachers in public schools, faculty in ASU’s School of Mathematics and Statistical Sciences have hoped for years for such a program. The new Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, in which more seventh and eighth graders study algebra and many high schoolers are led into calculus, add an extra push for putting math majors as teachers in high school classrooms.

Fabio Milner, professor of mathematics and director of mathematics for STEM education, says there’s been a great deal of interest among students. Still, creating a new major has not been easy.

“We had to create several new courses in both content and pedagogy, staying within 120 hours,” he says. “It’s been tricky. But we’ve worked with Teachers College to come up with a very well balanced program. We want to produce expert mathematicians who have the preparation to be excellent teachers, to meet the needs of the future.”

Milner also has worked with Teachers College to beef up the math content for students working toward a B.A. in elementary education, helping create four new content courses.

History faculty in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies also have been working for years toward such a degree, hiring Lauren Harris in 2011 with a joint appointment as assistant professor of history education in both the Teachers College and CLAS. She is enthusiastic about the possibilities for the new program.

“This allows us to have more connections to the community, with field placements,” she says. “A great number of history majors eventually end up teaching, and this gives them better preparation, as trained teachers who also have taken more history classes. There’s been a lot of support for this at ASU.”

The new physics degree program is part of the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, funded by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers. Currently two-thirds of high school physics teachers lack a major or a minor in physics, according to Robert Culbertson, associate professor of physics who has helped develop the new program.