Skip to Main Page Content
Home Page Display: 
 
image title

Massive star's dying blast caught by rapid-response telescopes

July 26, 2017

Blast of gamma rays is helping astronomers resolve long-standing questions about universe's most powerful explosions

In June 2016, an international team of 31 astronomers, led by the University of Maryland's Eleanora Troja and including Arizona State University's Nathaniel Butler, caught a massive star as it died in a titanic explosion deep in space. 

The blast of the dying star released in about 40 seconds as much energy as the sun releases over its entire lifetime, all focused into a tight beam of gamma rays aimed by chance toward Earth.

The team's findings, reported in the scientific journal Nature, provide strong evidence for one of two competing models for how gamma-ray bursters (GRBs) produce their energy. 

"These are the brightest explosions in the universe," said Butler, an associate professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration. "And we were able to measure this one's development and decay almost from the initial blast."

Quick reflexes

The gamma-ray blast on June 25, 2016, was detected by two NASA satellites that monitor the sky for such events, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission.

The satellite observatories detected the burst of gamma rays, identified where in the sky it came from, and sent its celestial position within seconds to automated telescopes on the ground.

The MASTER-IRC telescope at the Teide Observatory in the Canary Islands observed it first, within a minute of the satellite notification. The telescope is part of Russia's MASTER network of robotic telescopes at the Teide Observatory. It made optical light observations while the initial phase was still active, gathering data on the amount of polarized optical light relative to the total light produced.

After the sun set over this facility eight and a half hours later, the RATIR camera in which ASU is involved began observing. RATIR stands for Reionization And Transients InfraRed camera; it is mounted on a 1.5-meter (60-inch) robotically controlled telescope located on San Pedro Mártir Peak, at Mexico's National Astronomical Observatory in Baja California. Butler is the principal investigator for the fully automated camera.


The RATIR camera, directed from ASU, is mounted on on an automatically controlled telescope at Mexico's National Astronomical Observatory. RATIR allows astronomers to follow up (within a minute or two) on rapidly changing celestial events, such as gamma-ray bursters. Photo by Nathaniel Butler/ASU

"At best, it takes a minute or two for our telescope to slew to the burst's position," Butler said. "In this case, we had to wait for it to rise over the horizon. This means the gamma-ray burst itself had ended, and we were observing what's called the afterglow. This is the fading explosion as the radiation shocks up the interstellar medium around the star that exploded.

"The RATIR camera lets us take simultaneous images in six colors, two optical and four near-infrared. Over the past five years, RATIR has imaged 155 gamma-ray bursts."

Mystery beams of energy

While gamma-ray bursters have been known for about 50 years, astronomers are still mostly in the dark about how they erupt.

"Despite a long history of observations," Butler said, "the emission mechanism driving gamma-ray bursters remains largely mysterious."

Gamma-ray bursts are detected approximately once per day and are brief, but intense, flashes of gamma radiation. They come from all different directions in the sky, and they last from tens of milliseconds to about a minute, making it hard to observe them in detail.

Astronomers believe most of these explosions are associated with supernovas. These occur when a massive star reaches the end of its normal existence and blows up in a colossal explosion. A supernova throws off some of the star's outer layers, while its core and remaining layers collapse in a few seconds into a neutron star or, in the case of highly massive stars, a black hole.

Above: The RATIR camera captured the fading afterglow (arrow) of the June 2016 gamma-ray burster in this sequence running from June 26 through Aug. 20, 2016. Images by Nathaniel Butler/ASU

Continued RATIR observations over weeks following the June 2016 outburst showed that the gamma rays were shot out in a beam about two degrees wide, or roughly four times the apparent size of the moon. It was sheer chance that Earth happened to lie within the beam.

Beaming effects, Butler said, may result from the spin of the black hole produced after the supernova explosion, as it releases material along its poles.

Magnetic focus

"We think the gamma-ray emission is due to highly energetic electrons, propelled outward like a fireball,” Butler said. Magnetic fields must also be present, he added, and theories differ as to how the fields are produced and to what extent the flow of magnetic energy outward is important.

A key diagnostic is measuring the radiation's polarization, he explained. This, astronomers think, is largely controlled by the strength of the magnetic fields that focus the radiation.

"Measuring the strength of magnetic fields by their polarization effects can tell us about the mechanisms that accelerate particles such as electrons up to very high energies and cause them to radiate at gamma-ray energies," Butler said.

In the case of the June 2016 blast, the scientists were able to measure polarization using MASTER within minutes, an unprecedented early discovery. The large amount of polarization the team observed indicates that powerful magnetic fields were confining and directing it. This lends support for the magnetic origin model for gamma-ray bursters.

Although gamma-ray bursters have many more mysteries to be unfolded, Butler said, "this is the first strong evidence that the early shocks generated by these bursts are magnetically driven."


The RATIR camera, seen here mounted on the back end of the telescope, is stabilized with struts to assure correct alignment with the telescope when the whole assembly rapidly slews to lock onto a new target. Pictured is Alex Farah, mechanical engineer at the observatory. Photo by Alan Watson/UNAM

Top photo: This image shows the most common type of gamma-ray burst, thought to occur when a massive star collapses, forms a black hole and blasts particle jets outward at nearly the speed of light. Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Robert Burnham

Science writer , School of Earth and Space Exploration

480-458-8207

 
image title

ASU astronomers find young galaxies that appeared soon after the Big Bang

July 25, 2017

Using powerful Dark Energy Camera in Chile, researchers reach the cosmic dawn

ASU astronomers Sangeeta Malhotra and James Rhoads, working with international teams in Chile and China, have discovered 23 young galaxies, seen as they were 800 million years after the Big Bang. The results from this sample have been recently published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Long ago, about 300,000 years after the beginning of the universe (the Big Bang), the universe was dark. There were no stars or galaxies, and the universe was filled with neutral hydrogen gas. In the next half-billion years or so, the first galaxies and stars appeared. Their energetic radiation ionized their surroundings, illuminating and transforming the universe.

This dramatic transformation, known as re-ionization, occurred sometime in the interval between 300 million years and 1 billion years after the Big Bang. Astronomers are trying to pinpoint this milestone more precisely, and the galaxies found in this study help in this determination.

“Before re-ionization, these galaxies were very hard to see, because their light is scattered by gas between galaxies, like a car’s headlights in fog,” Malhotra said. “As enough galaxies turn on and ‘burn off the fog’ they become easier to see. By doing so, they help provide a diagnostic to see how much of the ‘fog’ remains at any time in the early universe.

Milestones in the history of the universe
Milestones in the history of the Universe (not to scale). The intergalactic gas was in a neutral state from about 300,000 years after the Big Bang until light from the first generation of stars and galaxies began to ionize it. The gas was completely ionized after 1 billion years. The LAGER study takes a close look at the state of the Universe at 800 million years (yellow box) to investigate when and how this transformation occurred. Image courtesy of National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

The Dark Energy Camera

To detect these galaxies, Malhotra and Rhoads have been using the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), one of the new powerful instruments in the astronomy field. DECam is installed at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO)’s 4-meter Blanco Telescope, located at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), in northern Chile, at an altitude of 7,200 feet.

“Several years ago, we carried out a similar study using a 64-megapixel camera that covers the same amount of sky as the full moon,” Rhoads said. “DECam, by comparison, is a 570-megapixel camera and covers 15 times the area of the full moon in a single image.”

DECam was recently made even more powerful when it was equipped with a special narrowband filter, designed at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE), primarily by Rhoads and Zhenya Zheng (who was a SESE postdoctoral fellow and is currently at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China), with assistance from Alistair Walker of NOAO.

“We spent several months refining the design of the filter profile, optimizing the design to get maximum sensitivity in our search,” said Zheng, the lead author of this study.

Touching the cosmic dawn

The galaxy search using the ASU-designed filter and DECam is part of the ongoing “Lyman Alpha Galaxies in the Epoch of Reionization” project (LAGER). It is the largest uniformly selected sample that goes far enough back in the history of the universe to reach cosmic dawn.

“The combination of large survey size and sensitivity of this survey enables us to study galaxies that are common but faint, as well as those that are bright but rare, at this early stage in the universe,” said Malhotra.

Junxian Wang, a co-author on this study and the lead of the Chinese LAGER team, adds that “our findings in this survey imply that a large fraction of the first galaxies that ionized and illuminated the universe formed early, less than 800 million years after the Big Bang.”

The next steps for the team will be to build on these results. They plan to continue to search for distant star-forming galaxies over a larger volume of the universe and to further investigate the nature of some of the first galaxies in the universe.  

Top photo: CTIO Blanco Telescope in Chile. Photo by Tim Abbott/CTIO

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager , School of Earth and Space Exploration

480-965-9345

 
image title

Study identifies new brain death pathway in Alzheimer’s disease

July 24, 2017

Findings of team led by ASU scientists offer hope for therapies targeting cell loss in the brain, an inevitable and devastating outcome of Alzheimer’s progression

Alzheimer’s disease tragically ravages the brains, memories and, ultimately, personalities of its victims. Now affecting 5 million Americans, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S., and a cure for Alzheimer’s remains elusive, as the exact biological events that trigger it are still unknown.

In a new study published today, Arizona State University-Banner Health neuroscientist Salvatore Oddo and his colleagues from Phoenix’s Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) — as well as the University of California, Irvine, and Mount Sinai in New York — have identified a new way for brain cells to become fated to die during Alzheimer’s disease.

The research team has found the first evidence that the activation of a biological pathway called necroptosis, which causes neuronal loss, is closely linked with Alzheimer’s severity, cognitive decline and extreme loss of tissue and brain weight that are all advanced hallmarks of the disease.

“We anticipate that our findings will spur a new area of Alzheimer’s disease research focused on further detailing the role of necroptosis and developing new therapeutic strategies aimed at blocking it,” said Oddo, the lead author of this study, and scientist at the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center at the Biodesign Institute and associate professor in the School of Life Sciences.

The findings appear in the advanced online edition of Nature Neuroscience.

Necroptosis, which causes cells to burst from the inside out and die, is triggered by a triad of proteins. It has been shown to play a central role in multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS), and now for the first time, also in Alzheimer’s disease.

“There is no doubt that the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease have fewer neurons,” said Oddo. “The brain is much smaller and weighs less; it shrinks because neurons are dying. That has been known for 100 years, but until now, the mechanism wasn’t understood.”

Links with Alzheimer’s

Necroptosis was first identified as a result of inflammation, a common malady in Alzheimer’s.

Three critical proteins are involved in the initiation of necroptosis, known as RIPK1, RIPK3 and MLKL. The study describes a key event in the process of necroptosis when RIPK1 and RIPK3 form a filamentous structure known as the necrosome.

The formation of the necrosome appears to jump-start the process of necroptosis. It activates MLKL, which affects the cell’s mitochondria, eventually leading to cell death.

Winnie Liang, TGen assistant professor, director of TGen Scientific Operations and director of TGen's Collaborative Sequencing Center, said MLKL executes necroptosis to ultimately cause cell death.

“In this study, we show for the first time that necroptosis is activated in Alzheimer’s disease, providing a plausible mechanism underlying neuronal loss in this disorder,” said Liang, who contributed to the study’s gene expression analyses.

 

To explore necroptosis, the research team utilized multiple cohorts of human samples obtained from the Brain and Body Donation Program at the Banner Sun Health Research Institute and Mount Sinai VA Medical Center Brain Bank.

First, they measured RIPK1, RIPK3 and MLKL in a specific region of the brain that is typically ravaged by cell loss during the advance of Alzheimer’s disease — the temporal gyrus. Results showed that during necroptosis, these markers were increased in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Next, they identified the molecular cascade of necroptosis activation, with RIPK1 activating RIPK3 by binding with it. This protein complex then binds to and activates MLKL. Analysis of mRNA and protein revealed elevated levels of both RIPK1 and MLKL in the postmortem brain tissues of patients with Alzheimer’s when compared with normal postmortem brains.  

Furthermore, they also demonstrated that necroptosis activation correlated with the protein tau. Intriguingly, necroptosis did not appear to be linked with the other chief physiological characteristic of Alzheimer’s pathology, beta-amyloid plaque.

Engines of decline

To assess the relationship between necroptotic protein levels and cognitive health, the study revisited the scores of patients whose postmortem brain tissue was evaluated for necroptosis. Results showed a significant association between RIPK1, MLKL and diminished scores on the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE), a widely used test measuring cognitive health.

Given the established relationship between necroptosis and Alzheimer’s pathology, including cell loss and attendant cognitive deficit, the study sought to inhibit the process to study the dynamic effects on cell death and memory loss.

With such experiments not possible in people, the team demonstrated in a mouse model of the disease that lowering the activation of the necroptosis pathway reduces cell loss and improves performance in memory-related tasks, offering new hope for human therapeutics to halt or reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s.

The results reveal that the inhibition of necroptosis activation through the blockage of RIPK1 prevents cell loss in mice. Compellingly, mice with inhibited activation of necroptosis pathways performed significantly better in tests of spatial memory involving navigation through a water maze.

New understanding, new hope

The study opens a new window on Alzheimer’s research and offers hope for therapies targeting cell loss in the brain, an inevitable and devastating outcome of Alzheimer’s progression.

Oddo stresses that RIPK1, RIPK3 and MLKL are among many potential drug targets, and others will likely follow as the links between necroptosis and Alzheimer’s become clearer. While multiple causes of the disease are likely, understanding more clearly all targets that trigger disease will offer the best hope since neuronal loss has been found in people more than a decade before any symptoms of dementia.

“One may not agree as to which molecules trigger Alzheimer’s disease, ” said Oddo, “but everybody agrees that the end result is the neuronal loss. If you can prevent that you may have a beneficial effect.” 

This work was supported by grants from the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium and the National Institutes of Health (R01 AG037637) to Salvatore Oddo, and R01 NS083801 and P50 AG016573 to Kim Green.

Data for the RIPK1 causal regulatory gene network were generated from postmortem brain tissue collected through the Mount Sinai VA Medical Center Brain Bank and were provided by Dr. Eric Schadt from Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The computational resources and staff expertise provided by the Department of Scientific Computing at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai also contributed to the performance of this research.

Joe Caspermeyer

Managing editor , Biodesign Institute

480-258-8972

 
image title

Study: Female doctors less likely to be referred to by title

ASU, Mayo study looks at how female doctors are addressed; finds gender bias.
July 21, 2017

Research team from ASU, Mayo Clinic analyzed footage of medical gatherings, found biggest discrepancy when men introduced women

The title of doctor, whether medical or academic, carries a certain weight. After all, you don’t become one without a great deal of time, dedication and expertise.

ASU Professor Patricia Friedrich and her husband, ASU Associate Professor Luiz Mesquita, are both doctors. Yet when they attended professional events together, she noticed an odd discrepancy.

“People would refer to him as ‘doctor’ and, in the same breath, refer to me as ‘Patty,’” she said. As a sociolinguistSociolinguistics is the descriptive study of the effect of any and all aspects of society, including cultural norms, expectations and context, on the way language is used and the effects of language use on society., it made her wonder.

Unbeknownst to her at the time, the same thing had other female doctors scratching their heads; in particular, doctors Anita Mayer and Julia Files from Mayo Clinic Arizona, who recruited Friedrich and her linguistic skills to look further into it. The research team, which also included two of Friedrich’s students, Trevor Duston and Ryan Melikian, published a study on the phenomenon recently, which found that female doctors introduced by men at formal gatherings were less likely to be referred to by their professional title than were male doctors introduced by men.

The researchers analyzed video footage of 321 speaker introductions at two separate formal medical gatherings. Various data were codified by pairs of researchers, one female and one male, to ensure as little bias as possible.

They found that regardless of the speaker’s gender, female introducers were 96 percent more likely to use professional titles compared with 66 percent of male introducers. This is consistent with researchers’ expectations based on past studies that have found that women tend to use a more formal register across the board compared with men, Friedrich said.

The findings were relatively similar for same-gendered introducers and speakers, with female introducers of female speakers using professional titles roughly 98 percent of the time, and male introducers of male speakers using professional titles roughly 72 percent of the time.

But when it came to opposite genders introducing each other, the biggest discrepancy was found: Female introducers of male speakers used professional titles roughly 95 percent of the time, while male introducers of female speakers used professional titles roughly 49 percent of the time.

That’s statistically significant, Friedrich said, and was something female researchers on the team had anticipated based on personal experience.

“We wanted to see if the differences that doctors who happen to be women were noticing in their own professional lives could be quantified,” said Friedrich, who is in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. “And that is what we were able to confirm.”

One of the things she and the rest of the research team agree on is that the discrepancy is not necessarily intentional. According to Friedrich, one male doctor reported that addressing female doctors by their first name instead of their professional title was an attempt to convey that they were equals.

Another reason behind the discrepancy could be that forms of address for men vs. women are so strongly socially embedded in us that we don’t realize we’re differentiating, Friedrich added.

Either way, the possible repercussions are real.

“Some people say, what’s the big deal? It’s such a minor thing, why should anybody care?” she said. “As a social linguist, my belief is that little things in language are often indicative of social practices that usually do have ramifications.”

Those ramifications can include roadblocks to professional development, being perceived as having less authority and being taken less seriously in one’s profession.

And it happens across multiple professions in which titles are common, such as academia, law and among members of the clergy, Friedrich said.

Since the results of the study were published, one of the formal medical gatherings from which the research team gathered data has changed its standard of introductions, advising attendees to include formal titles in introductions of all speakers.

“I think this is one of those linguistic situations where we called attention to something that might not be intentional but now we have the ability to try and change it by initiating practices that are more even across genders,” Friedrich said. “Sometimes language changes because society changes, and sometimes society changes because language changes.”

Friedrich and the team were pleased that the study proved to be so productive and are motivated by the results to build on it in the future, considering, as she said, that “it’s applicable to so many realms.”

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

(480) 965-9657

 
image title
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

 
image title

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.

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications

480-965-9681

 
image title
Get ready for #NationalMoonDay with these ASU missions, photos and more.
July 18, 2017

Celebrate National Moon Day with our space sampler of university missions, photo resources, moon rocks and movies

One small step for man ... one giant reason to celebrate each year.

Thursday's National Moon Day commemorates July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, the first humans to ever do so. 

We suggest celebrating the day with some cheese, a 3-D movie on campus and this moon melange of lunar excellence at Arizona State University.

 

One big step for a small satellite

Full-scale model of the LunaH-Map satellite
For the NASA review, the ASU team made a full-size model of their spacecraft, the LunaH-Map, which will create a map of the moon's water deposits. Photo by Craig Hardgrove/ASU

LunaH-Map, ASU’s first exclusive NASA mission, passed a milestone in late June. The tiny spacecraft that will fly to the moonAssociated Press style is to lowercase "moon," though many scientists insist that as a proper noun, it should be capitalized. Discuss amongst yourselves. and hunt for ice next year successfully passed a major review. Science team members, partners, and hardware providers gathered at the Tempe campus with representatives from NASA headquarters.

“It was a great time to review the overall design as well as to meet many of the team members that we typically only hear on the phone,” said principal investigator Craig Hardgrove, a planetary scientist and assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “We are now working on finalizing our integration, test and operations plans as well as preparing lab spaces for our first flight hardware arrivals later this year.”

The mission launches in 2018. During this coming year, the spacecraft will be built, validation and qualification tests performed, and software tools written to operate the craft. 

“It's a busy and fun time for us!” Hardgrove said. “The most surprising thing has been just how small our spacecraft is. For (the major review) we printed a full-size 3-D model of our spacecraft. It really is the size of a shoebox!”

 

Face it, your Instagram will never be this cool

Astronauts Cernan and Evans on Apollo 17
Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan (left) and Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans take advantage of microgravity for a space portrait. At 12 days and 13 hours, this was the longest of the Apollo missions, leaving plenty of time for photos (and, you know, science stuff). Photo by NASA

It's not just the moon landing, commemorated by National Moon Day, that's so exciting for us Earthbound mortals; it's also the glimpse into the missions that led up to that and what life was like for those astronauts.

If that's your bag, you're in luck: The March to the Moon website, tothemoon.ser.asu.edu, hosts scores of photographs (like the one above) and information from Projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center was involved in scanning the images, which range from lunar surfaces to crew members brushing their teeth and shaving.

Here's a hint: There are a lot of photos on the site. Once you're in a particular mission, keep clicking through the first sometimes-fuzzy frames; we promise it will be worth it.

 

Speaking of photos ... this one? ASU cameras shot it, and thousands more

NASA image of the Earth from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
A full Earth straddles the edge of the moon, as seen from lunar orbit above Compton crater in the foreground. On Earth, Africa is visible at center right, and South America can be glimpsed through clouds at left. Photo by NASA/GSFC/ASU

This gorgeous Earthrise photo, with a cratered moon in the foreground, was taken in October 2015 by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter using onboard cameras operated by ASU. It's one of thousands of images on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) website curated by the team headed by Mark Robinson, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. 

The images are both scientific and artistic, no small feat when your cameras are moving at more than 3,580 miles an hourThe manuever involved the spacecraft rolling 67 degrees to the side and then slewing with the direction of travel to maximize the width of the horizon — while traveling faster than 3,580 miles per hour. Then there's a bit of special processing needed, in which the information is combined from both the high-resolution Narrow Angle Camera (NAC, which takes black-and-white images) and the lower-resolution Wide Angle Camera (WAC, which does color).. Tom Watters, curator of a 2016 Smithsonian Museum exhibit that featured 61 LROC images at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., called Robinson “the Rembrandt of capturing just the right kind of lighting.”

Robinson, whose first college degree was a double major in political science and fine-art photography, sees the moon as “this beautiful little world.”

“It’s not just a romantic silver disc you see in the sky at night; it’s a world in its own right,” the LROC principal investigator said in a story about the Smithsonian exhibit. “And it’s somewhere we should be going back to.”

It's beautiful — and always changing. More than 200 new craters have been imaged since the LRO started orbiting. Explore images of its changing surface — including the jarred image from October 2014 when one of the cameras was hit by a meteroid — at the LROC website at lroc.sese.asu.edu. Among the site's many features are interactive maps of the Apollo landing sites.

 

A piece of moon history, right here in Tempe

Moon rock in a display case
A golf-ball-size piece of the moon is on display at the LROC Science Operations Center's Visitor Gallery, in the Interdisciplinary A building on ASU's Tempe campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

In an unassuming brick building on ASU's Tempe campus lies the LROC Science Operations Center. There, Mark Robinson's hardworking team of individuals process and curate the thousands of photos from the lunar cameras. An image collection that, quite frankly, rocks.

But in the public lobby just outside the team's glassed-in workspace in Interdisciplinary A, there's something else that rocks: an actual stone from the lunar surface.

The rock, on a long-term loan to ASU from NASA, weighs 2.7 ounces and is part of a 21-pound lunar rock (Sample 15555) collected by the Apollo 15 astronauts on Aug. 2, 1971. Informally named after its collector, astronaut Dave Scott, the “Great Scott” rock was picked up about 13 yards north of the rim of Hadley Rille.

It is part of the 842 pounds of lunar samples collected during six Apollo missions. By studying certain radioactive elements in the Apollo samples, scientists determined that the moon is 4.5 billion years old.

So next time it feels like a certain class is lasting forever, swing by to check outIf you're in the mood for even more space rocks, the meteorite gallery at the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies is free and open to the public for self-guided tours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays on the second floor of ISTB4 on the Tempe campus. the rock — and gain some cosmic perspective.

 

Into the shadows

ShadowCam mapping PSRs
The ShadowCam instrument will acquire images of shadowed regions of the moon using a high-resolution camera, telescope, and highly sensitive sensors. Image by ASU/Malin Space Science Systems

Professor Mark Robinson, the LROC maestro, is involved in another lunar mission; if we were punsters, we might say he must be over the moon about it. 

NASA has selected an instrument developed by him and Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) to map the terrain and search for evidence of frost or ice deposits in the moon’s permanently shadowed regions (PSRs).

The instrument, named ShadowCam, will be a U.S. contribution to the Korea Aerospace Research Institute’s first lunar exploration mission, Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter. Robinson will be the ShadowCam's principal investigator.

The ShadowCam optical camera is based on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Narrow Angle Camera also developed by Robinson and MSSS. It is, however, significantly more sensitive, allowing the camera to obtain high-resolution, high signal-to-noise imaging of the moon’s PSRs. For those familiar with digital cameras, this sensitivity gain is like going from ISO 100 to ISO 80,000. That's quite the upgrade.

Plus, ShadowCam gets our vote for coolest instrument name (best pronounced in a Batman voice).

 

Silver orb on the silver screen

A girl prepares to watch a 3-D movie
OK, so it's not like actually being in space. But the 3-D astronomy shows at Marston Theater on the Tempe campus make for some pretty far-out fun. Photo by School of Earth and Space Exploration

Admit it. Movies are just cooler when you get to wear funny glasses to watch them. 

"The Moon Revealed" is a new 3-D show that looks at the moon from the perspective of history, missions and culture, including the latest research from ASU’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, revealing secrets of our nearest celestial neighbor.

The Marston Theater of Exploration on the Tempe campus will be featuring “The Moon Revealed” on July 19, 22, 29 and Aug. 5, 16, 19.  For more information and to purchase tickets, visit sese.asu.edu/public-engagement/3-d-astronomy.

The Marston Exploration Theater is in the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV. The theater employs Definiti SkySkan Planetarium technology utilizing 4K projection systems that render Earth and Space Science themes in 3-D stereographic vision.

 

Maybe we'll book rooms with Air(&Space)bnb

And finally, Jim Bell, professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and director of the NewSpace Initiative, talks about why deep space is the new economic frontier — and whether a weekend on the moon is around the corner.

Video from the ASU KEDtalks series.

 

Scott Seckel, Charlie Leight, Karin Valentine, Keri Hensley and Penny Walker contributed to this report. Top photo: The moon photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera team at ASU. Photo by NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

 
image title
July 17, 2017

Awards, which total $4.3 million, ranking the university first among recipients in the Photovoltaics Research category

Arizona State University has earned six prestigious U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Awards, totaling $4.3 million, ranking it first among recipients in the Photovoltaics Research category for 2017.  

This year’s awards, which come with grants totaling $20.5 million overall for 28 projects, supports the development of new commercial photovoltaics technologies that improve product performance, reliability and manufacturability. In this round, ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering placed ahead of other leading solar research centers — the University of Central Florida ($3.18 million), Stanford ($1.59 million) and Colorado State ($1.28 million) each earned two awards. Last year, ASU photovoltaics researchers also received the majority of SunShot PV awards, taking six of 19 and $3.75 million in funding.

SunShot was launched in 2011 with a goal of making solar cost-competitive with conventional energy sources by 2020; the program is now at 90 percent of its goal of $0.06 per kilowatt-hour and recently expanded its target to $0.03 per kilowatt-hour by 2030.

ASU’s Quantum Energy and Sustainable Technologies (QESST) NSF-DOE research center and testbed in Tempe has established ASU’s engineering program as a powerhouse in photovoltaics, playing a key role in SunShot objectives. QESST is the largest university solar research facility in the United States, drawing researchers from around the world in the mission to advance photovoltaic technologies. QESST will continue to play a major role in the photovoltaics industry as SunShot moves to double the amount of national electricity demand provided by solar.

“ASU receiving six DOE SunShot Initiative grants — many more than any academic institution on the awardee list — is a testimony to our faculty’s excellence in building innovative solutions that help power the future in a reliable and cost-effective way,” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development and chief research and innovation officer at ASU.

“For the second year in a row, our faculty won more SunShot awards than any other institution in the country, reaffirming our leadership in the research, development and advancement of photovoltaic science and technology,” said Kyle Squires, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “Photovoltaics are a key component of tomorrow’s energy solutions, and this recognition from the Department of Energy highlights not only our faculty’s research excellence and the inherent value of their ideas, but also the breadth and depth of research in the Fulton Schools of Engineering.”

This year’s award recipients include:

Mariana Bertoni, assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, was granted two awards. 

Award 1: Spalling, or the process of exfoliating a wafer from a silicon block, has shown promise as an efficient, waste-reducing production method for wafers. Bertoni’s first study is exploring a new spalling technique that relies on sound waves and low temperatures, to mitigate contamination of the wafers, while achieving industry relevant thickness and surface planarity.

“During our previous DOE award we have shown that the technique works; now we need to fine-tune the parameters to evaluate the potential for upscaling,” Bertoni said. “This could be a disruptive technology with applications well beyond silicon.”

Award 2: Bertoni’s second project will be studying the correlation between electrical properties, structure and composition at the nanoscale in thin film modules of cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide. The team will be designing a multimodal hard X-ray microscopy approach to probe non-destructively different regions of modules under operating conditions. Detailed characterization could lead the way to improved module efficiency, lower degradation rates and longer warranties. Additionally, Bertoni is serving as co-principal investigator on Assistant Professor Owen Hildreth’s award (see below), and is co-PI on a fourth award, working in conjunction with Assistant Professor David Fenning of the University of California San Diego to develop a way to detect water present in photovoltaic modules. Using this methodology, the pair hopes to model performance degradation from water exposure.

“Understanding the origin of performance loses and how variations in illumination or temperature affect thin film modules will help us engineer high efficiency, long lasting devices,” Bertoni said.

Stuart Bowden, associate research professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, is designing a novel photovoltaic cell architecture known as M-CELL. This structure is a single silicon wafer, which allows integration and interconnection of multiple cells in series to enable higher voltage and lower current than existing modules.

Owen Hildreth, assistant professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, is researching ways to drastically reduce solar cell cost through the reduction of silver consumption. His project is investigating the how material and growth properties of reactive metal inks impact the reliability of solar cells metallized using these new inks. Hildreth’s work has potential for use both traditional silicon wafer technologies and next-generation heterojunction architectures, which currently employ costly metallization techniques due to temperature sensitivity.

“The solar cell industry currently spends more than $14 billion per year screen printing silver electrodes on the top of solar cells; this project aims to reduce those costs by a factor of 10 and reduce solar cell wafer production costs by 27 percent — making solar energy even more affordable to consumers,” said Hildreth.

Govindasamy Tamizhmani, associate research professor at the Polytechnic School, is investigating new methods for rapid and accurate characterization of photovoltaic modules in operation. Current methods are time-consuming and costly and lack the ability to account for differences between lab and field conditions — a vital component to understand the physical causes of performance variation in the field.

“Obtaining string and module I-V curves simultaneously is of great importance to plant owners and service providers to identify the underperforming modules and to determine the degradation rates and module mismatch losses,” Tamizhamani said.

Meng Tao, professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, is working on a two-layer aluminum electrode to replace its silver counterpart currently used in silicon photovoltaic cells. This could reduce processing expenses and improve device lifetime and reliability while maintaining high efficiency.

Terry Grant

Engineering Media Relations Officer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-727-4058

 
image title

Is a biological driver behind our need for self-fulfillment?

ASU study challenges traditional assumptions about self-actualization.
July 14, 2017

ASU study asks what it means for humans to realize their full potential; oftentimes it can be tied to passing genes to next generation

As human beings, what drives us to higher levels of existence? Once we have satisfied the basics — food, shelter, a mate, children — then what? For many it’s the idea of self-actualization, or realizing our full potential.

But what does self-actualization look like? How do we know when we are doing it? When are we trying to realize our highest potential? Self-actualization is a popular idea — in psychology, business, education and the multimillion-dollar self-help industry. Everyone, it seems, wants to realize his or her full potential.

portrait of woman
ASU doctoral student Jaimie Arona Krems

“Despite all of this interest in becoming self-actualized, we still didn’t know what people believed it would mean to realize their full potential,” said Jaimie Arona Krems, a doctoral student in social psychology at Arizona State University, and one of the authors of a new series of studies on what people think it means to be self-actualized. “So we asked them.”

That research, “Individual perceptions of self-actualization: What functional motives are linked to fulfilling one’s full potential?” was published in the early online edition of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Krems and her co-authors, ASU professor of psychology Douglas Kenrick and University of Iowa’s Rebecca Neel, a former ASU doctoral student, drew on ideas from evolutionary biology to challenge some traditional assumptions about what it means to be self-actualized.

“The traditional view of self-actualization saw it as somehow ‘above’ baser physiological and social desires — it sits on top of Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid of needs,” Kenrick said. “In fact, Maslow’s favorite examples of self-actualizing behaviors were going off to play the guitar or write poetry for your own satisfaction.”

“But if you take an evolutionary perspective on human behavior, it seems unlikely that our ancestors would have evolved to solve all the problems of survival, making friends, gaining status and winning mates, just to go off and entertain themselves,” he added.

From an evolutionary perspective, developing one’s full potential — by becoming an expert musician, scientist or philosopher — might translate into social benefits, such as winning respect and affection from other members of the group, and even winning the attention of potential mates.

So the research team recruited college students and other adults, and asked them what they would be doing if they were realizing their full potential right now. They surveyed more than 1,200 people and had them rate the extent to which their answers reflected several fundamental and evolutionarily relevant social motives (finding friends, seeking status, caring for kin). One of the predictions that the team made was that most people would link pursuing self-actualization to pursuing status (getting all A’s in school, being famous in their fields of endeavor).

Indeed, people do link self-actualization to achieving status and esteem, a motivation that can and often does translate into “fitness,” or the success of passing genes to future generations. The importance of status was unique to self-actualization and did not apply to other forms of self-fulfillment.

When people thought about achieving meaning in life (what psychologists call eudaimonic well-being) and global life satisfaction (subjective well-being), they emphasized spending time with friends and family; when they thought about pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain (hedonic well-being), they placed relatively more emphasis on finding new romantic/sexual partners and staying safe from physical harm.

“Although pursuing status and pursuing self-actualization might feel different,” Krems said, “these pursuits might be rooted in a common motivational system, one that pushes us to go after those biological and social rewards that, in our ancestral past, would have made it more likely that our genes appeared in subsequent generations.”

The team was also able to provide a scientific explanation for what Maslow had long ago mentioned — that different activities lead to self-actualization for different people. In line with modern ideas from evolutionary biology, a person’s life-history features (sex, age, relationship status, parenting status) influenced the goals he or she linked to self-actualization — and in sensible, potentially functional ways. For example, single people emphasized that finding new romantic partners would be a part of their self-actualization, whereas partnered people emphasized that maintaining their existing romantic relationships would be a part of their self-actualization. And parents — especially when they had very young children — emphasized that caring for those children would be a major part of their self-actualization.

By finding mates, keeping mates and caring for children, people might feel self-actualized, and they might also be furthering exactly those biologically relevant outcomes that lead to getting their genes into next generations.

“So, the desire for self-actualization isn’t ‘above’ biological and social needs; people’s drive to achieve their own highest potential is all about achieving critically important social goals,” Kenrick concluded.

Or as Krems explained: “For real people, pursuing self-actualization might further biologically relevant goals.”

Associate Director , Media Relations & Strategic Communications

480-965-4823

ASU/TGen-led study identifies source of mutation in Alzheimer’s disease

ANK1 gene expression change found in brain's microglia cells associated with neuroinflammation


July 12, 2017

Researchers led by Arizona State University and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) have identified altered expression of a gene called ANK1, which only recently has been associated with memory-robbing Alzheimer’s disease, in specific cells in the brain.

Using an extremely precise method of isolating cells called “laser capture microdissection,” researchers looked at three specific cell types — microglia, astrocytes and neurons — in the brain tissue of individuals with a pathological diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and compared them with brain samples from healthy individuals and those with Parkinson’s disease. Diego Mastroeni, an assistant research professor at Biodesign’s ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center, and the study’s lead author. Download Full Image

Following sequencing of each of these cell types, the ASU/TGen-led team found that altered ANK1 expression originates in microglia, a type of immune cell found in the brain and central nervous system, according to the study published today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

“Although previous genetic and epigenetic-wide association studies had shown a significant association between ANK1 and AD, they were unable to identify the class of cells that may be responsible for such association because of the use of brain homogenates. Here, we provide evidence that microglia are the source of the previously observed differential expression patterns in the ANK1 gene in Alzheimer’s disease,” said Diego Mastroeni, an assistant research professor at Biodesign’s ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center, and the study’s lead author.  

All three of the cell types in this study were derived from the hippocampus, a small looping structure shaped like a seahorse (its name derives from the Greek words for horse and sea monster). The hippocampus resides deep inside the human brain and plays important roles in the consolidation of both short- and long-term memory, and in the spatial memory that enables the body to navigate.

In Alzheimer's disease — and other forms of dementia — the hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage, resulting in short-term memory loss and disorientation. Individuals with extensive damage to the hippocampus are unable to form and retain new memories.

“Using our unique data set, we show that in the hippocampus, ANK1 is significantly increased four-fold in Alzheimer’s disease microglia, but not in neurons or astrocytes from the same individuals,” said Winnie Liang, an assistant professor, director of TGen Scientific Operations and director of TGen’s Collaborative Sequencing Center. “These findings emphasize that expression analysis of defined classes of cells is required to understand what genes and pathways are dysregulated in Alzheimer’s.”

Alzheimer’s features many signs of chronic inflammation, and microglia are key regulators of the inflammatory cascade, proposed as an early event in the development of Alzheimer’s, the study said.

Because the study found that ANK1 also was increased two-fold in Parkinson’s disease, “these data suggest that alterations in ANK1, at least in microglia, may not be disease-specific, but rather a response, or phenotype associated with neurodegeneration … more specifically, neuroinflammation.”

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, an irreversible and progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory, thinking skills and eventually the ability to conduct even the simplest of tasks. For most patients, symptoms first appear in the mid-60s. For older Americans, it is the third-leading cause of death, following heart disease and cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“The success of this, and many other studies, owes a great deal to the support and collaborative nature of the people of the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium. The results obtained in this work emphasize the importance of methods that enable us to characterize the molecular profile of defined cells, either as a group or as single cells, that have been defined by any of several means,” said Paul Coleman, research professor at Biodesign’s ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center, and the study’s senior author.

Eric Reiman, director of the Arizona Alzheimer's Consortium and Clinical Director of Neurogenomics at TGen, said: “This study demonstrates the value of bringing together talented researchers from different disciplines and organizations to advance the scientific fight against Alzheimer’s disease.”

Also contributing to this study were: Banner Sun Health Research Institute; University of Exeter Medical School; and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London.

The study — ANK1 is up-regulated in Laser Captured Microglia in Alzheimer’s brain; the importance of addressing cellular heterogeneity — was funded by the Arizona Biomedical Research Commission, and the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium. The consortium’s annual scientific symposium was May 18 at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix, where the authors presented details of these findings.  

Media contact: Joe Caspermeyer, 480-727-9577, Joseph.Caspermeyer@asu.edu

Pages